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Selling the state: the 'unethical' companies taking over UK public services

Some of the companies moving in on the British public sector are among the most unethical in the country. Of these, those entrusted with the care of asylum seekers rank with the very worst.

The companies managing UK immigration have come in for criticism once again, in new research — ‘Is that what you call good service?’ — by pressure group Ethical Consumer.

The report scrutinises the environmental and ethical records of twenty of the companies now profiting from the privatisation of public services — including health, education, care and justice — and rates them among the UK’s most unethical. Companies entrusted with the care of asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors and families with young children, are among the very worst.

While the research takes into account a wide range of criteria from factory farming to tax evasion, some of the categories are of particular relevance to assessing a company’s suitability to hold a duty of care over vulnerable persons. G4S and Serco, who dominate UK immigration escorting and detention, have the lowest possible rating for the 'human rights' category, contributing to their being placed in the very bottom rungs of the report’s ethical table. 

Another significant category is 'political activity', where Ethical Consumer finds a “corporate culture of widespread lobbying to gain access to Whitehall power-brokers, donations to political parties and a revolving-door policy of former government ministers heading straight into jobs with some of the companies surveyed.” G4S and Serco scored the worst possible rating for this category.

G4S runs several immigration detention facilities, including the newly opened and euphemistically named 'pre-departure accommodation' incarcerating families and children. Ethical Consumer’s report is the latest in a long line of damning criticisms of the company and its practices, including two separate reports published in July by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, and Amnesty International. Last year an assessment of safety conditions at Brook House, one of the G4S centres, showed 'the worst ever results'.

Given the numerous accounts in these reports of policy breaches, inadequately trained staff and both physical and mental damage caused to detainees while in the care of G4S — not to mention the death of Jimmy Mubenga after ‘restraint’ by G4S last year — it is unsurprising that the company scored so poorly with regard to human rights. 

With regards to ‘political activity’, G4S pays £50,000 a year to former defence secretary John Reid MP (now Lord Reid) for 'strategic advice', an appointment made mere months before G4S were able to secure a lucrative four year MoD contract and while Reid was still a serving MP. 

For its part, Serco has been criticised many times for the conditions at Yarl's Wood detention centre which led to repeated hunger strikes by detainees, as well as recent condemnation of conditions at Colnbrook centre near Heathrow Airport.

That responsibility for caring for those in administrative detention — including children and vulnerable adults — is in the hands of such companies is a long-standing scandal. The government’s rapid acceleration in its abrogation of responsibility in favour of companies that fail so spectacularly to meet ethical standards will soon touch all our lives.

About the author

Tom Sanderson is a freelance researcher, and volunteer campaigner with End Child Detention Now. He currently works at the Centre for Investigative Journalism.


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