A very interesting story in this fortnight’s Private Eye magazine (No. 1521, p.10) about the use of private companies Sodexo, G4S and Serco running the drive-through COVID-19 test-centres. There are currently 27 centres running, with plans to expand to around 50. The article focuses on the recruitment of temporary staff to train as swab testers and team managers. According to job adverts, neither role requires clinical experience, although experience of working in such an environment “is desirable”. Private Eye argues that, “The hiring of a generic privatiser using temporary, non-medical staff in a key COVID-19 response means that the Government can hit the ‘off’ switch when the worst of the crisis is over”.
Those who are interested in the contracting out of criminal justice services in recent years will recognise the three companies named. G4S and Serco had to refund the UK Government a combined total of £180m following over-charging by both companies in relation to contracts to tag offenders. A Serious Fraud Office inquiry was opened in November 2013 when a PricewaterhouseCoopers external audit suggested that, “the firms had been charging for tagging criminals who were either dead, in jail or never tagged in the first place” (BBC, 2013). Back in 2012, G4S was criticised for providing insufficient security at the London Olympics and prison and detention centres run by the company overseas have been associated with high levels of violence and abuse.
In a shake-up of the Probation Service in 2015, the Government outsourced the supervision of low and medium risk offenders to Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs): six of these 21 CRCs were run by Sodexo. In 2019, the Chief Inspector of Probation identified this model as “irredeemably flawed”. A National Audit Office report suggests that the Ministry of Justice paid £467m more than planned under the original CRC contracts. Supervision of offenders is now in the process of being brought back under public management.
Elsewhere in the criminal justice sector, the weakly regulated privatisation of forensic science services in 2012 (following the closure of the publicly owned Forensic Science Service (FSS)), has led to what the chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee called in 2019 a ‘breaking point’ in forensic provision. The concerns here are around capacity and potential for miscarriages of justice.
Returning to the top story, private providers can be agile in setting up, managing and winding down services, as needed. They are therefore an attractive proposition. Other than an ideological aversion to private sector involvement in the delivery of public services, why should we be concerned?
Following years of under-funding in the public sector under austerity, the COVID-19 virus hits hard. The Government has had to build capacity quickly. Despite their chequered history, the same crop of companies appear repeatedly to win Government tenders and are no doubt making significant money for their directors and shareholders. Yet their performance in recent years in the criminal justice and other sectors suggests they need careful supervision to assure service quality, safety, employee rights and cost control. There is then both an immediate question about the selection of private partners and a broader question about the overall rationale for outsourcing.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.