As much as they may like to give off the impression they can, we all know our government can’t do everything itself. Often what will happen is governments will contract private companies and corporations to deal with certain things for them. Take the IT company, Hewlett-Packard, for example. In 2013, they took in over £1.6 billion from the UK government alone. IT, however, is by no means the only thing the UK government needs assistance with as defence, transport, prisons, health and education services are all being provided for by privately owned, outsourced corporations.
In the UK, companies such as Atos, Capita and G4S have all come under fire in the past after being accused of incompetence, corruption and defrauding the taxpayer, all while working on contracts won from the government. There is one corporation, though, that leaves a far fouler taste in the mouth than these three. Enter Serco, often referred to as “the biggest company you’ve never heard of”.
Founded in 1929 as RCA Services Limited and based in Hook, Hampshire UK, Serco has grown to become one of the largest corporations on the planet with on-going operations in 16 countries across the globe. In the UK alone, Serco has managed to infiltrate nearly every essential service possible, from transport and education to schools, prisons and state security all being contracted out to the giant multi-national. Globally, Serco runs prisons in Australia, New Zealand and Germany, trains in Australia and the United Arab Emirates, Ferries in Sweden and Healthcare in the US and Canada. But, despite being so international, the majority of its income is generated by the UK due to the sheer size of Serco operations in its home country. And what is Serco’s net income I hear you ask? Well, in 2014 it was £1,347.1 million…
So what’s wrong with all of this? Governments paying corporations to help them out? Happens all the time, right? This is, of course, true and, in theory, there is nothing wrong with it. Questions are raised, however, when we start to look at whom our government is handing out contracts to and how much they’re being paid for the work they do. For instance, if an organisation were unfit to perform the work required for an essential service from an awarded contract, we, the public, (and we would hope the government too) would sure as hell want to know about it. And, to a degree, we do indeed know about such companies, the problem is they’re still being outsourced to.
In 2013, Serco-run Yarl’s Wood detention centre hit the headlines after it was found that staff had sexually abused a number of the detainees being held there. Yarl’s Wood, in Bedfordshire, was taken over by Serco in 2007 and is a prison residential centre housing up to 400 refugee women awaiting immigration clearance or deportation.
“We operate a comprehensive complaints system for detainees who feel that they have not been treated in accordance with our published operating standards.”
It also emerged that, in 2014, Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May denied United Nations special rapporteur into violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, access to the facility. Actions such as this speak volumes about the current UK government’s attitude towards the most vulnerable in society. Speaking to Heart 96.9, a spokesperson for the Home Office stated “We expect contractors to maintain the highest standards. Any allegations of misconduct are thoroughly investigated and, if necessary, they will be reported to the appropriate authorities, including the police”. Adding “We operate a comprehensive complaints system for detainees who feel that they have not been treated in accordance with our published operating standards.”
The idea that women who have been sexually abused, let alone those of whom were victim to people tasked with caring for them, should be either willing to initiate or compliant to a “complaints system” is utter bullshit. The women found here are some of the most vulnerable in the country, having escaped war, famine, oppression or abuse in their home countries. It is sickening to think of the sheer inhumanity of what happened to these women whilst in the supposed care of Serco’s Yarl’s Wood facility.
It would be understandable then, after an incident such as that, for the government to want to cease its dealings with Serco and distance itself from the company as much as it can. However, this is not what happened. The number of allegations of sexual contact between staff and detainees eventually came to over 30 and, eventually, 10 members of staff were dismissed in relation to the abuse.
Believe it or not, Serco is still running Yarl’s Wood to this day. Is this justifiable? Are they the only corporation capable of running such a detention centre? Of course they’re not, so how come they still find themselves in charge? Who on Earth could still think they were an appropriate company to run such a facility given their track record? Has the UK government become the beaten wife that refuses to leave her husband through fear of not coping on her own? Or is there possibly something more insidious going on? We mentioned earlier that, of course, Serco are replaceable. There is nothing to say that the UK couldn’t choose another outsourcing company if it so wanted. So, what gives? Is there some kind of contractual favouritism going on? Or is it just a case of brotherly love?
Rupert Christopher Soames OBE and Sir Arthur Nicholas Winston Soames are two British; Eton College educated brothers from Croydon. Nicholas works as a conservative member of parliament for Mid-Sussex and is a former defence minister, having served in the government of former PM John Major. Rupert, on the other hand, is the current CEO of Serco. That’s right, the same Serco whose staff were responsible for the sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood. Is this evidence of a crime? No. But what it does do is raise serious questions about the kind of corporations the UK government is choosing to award contracts to. Does Nicholas’s position as an MP influence the decision to use his brother’s firm? Maybe, maybe not. The bigger question would be just how ethical is it for the UK to allow Serco the ability to bid for contracts of this nature, given its history.