What do you have to do to fall out of favour with this government? Last month, the security company G4S was quietly rehabilitated. It had been banned in August 2013 from bidding for government contracts after charging the state for tagging 3,000 phantom criminals. Those who had died before it started monitoring them presented a particularly low escape risk. G4S was obliged to pay £109m back to the government.
Eight months later, and before an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office has concluded, back it bounces seeking more government business. Never mind that it almost scuppered the Olympics; never mind Jimmy Mubenga, an asylum seeker who died in 2010 after being “restrained” by G4S guards, or Gareth Myatt, a 15-year-old who died while being held down at a secure training centre in 2004; never mind the scandals at Oakwood, a giant prison it runs. G4S, described by MPs as one of a handful of “privately owned public monopolies“, is crucial to the government’s attempts to outsource almost everything. So it cannot be allowed to fail.
Was it ever banned at all? Six days after the moratorium was lifted, G4S won a contract to run HMRC services. A fortnight later it was chosen as one of the companies that will run the government’s Help to Work scheme. How did it win these contracts if in the preceding months it wasn’t allowed to bid?
When I first worked in Brazil in the late 1980s, the country was widely described as o pais da impunidade – the land of impunity. What this meant was that there were no political consequences. Politicians, officials and contractors could be exposed for the most flagrant corruption, but they remained in post. The worst that happened was early retirement with a fat pension and the proceeds of their villainy safely stashed offshore. It is beginning to look a bit like that here. This is not to suggest that the people or companies I name in this article are crooked or corrupt; it is to suggest that the political class no longer seems to care about failure.
The failure works both ways, of course. As Polly Toynbee has shown, the Help to Work pilot projects, which G4S will run, reveal that it is a complete waste of time and money. Yet the government has decided to go ahead anyway, subjecting the jobless to yet more humiliation and pointlessness. Contrast the boundless forgiveness of G4S to the endless castigation for being unemployed.
A record of failure reflects the environment in which such companies are hired: one in which ministers launch improbable schemes then look the other way when they go wrong. G4S had to pay back so much money for the phantom criminals it wasn’t monitoring because it had been doing it for eight years, and no one in government had bothered to check. There is no such thing as failure any more, just lessons to be learnt.
Accountability has always been weak in the UK, but under this government you must make spectacular efforts to lose your post. At the Leveson inquiry in May 2012, the relationship between the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and the Murdoch empire that he was supposed to be regulating was exposed in gory detail. He was meant to be deciding impartially whether to allow the empire to take over the broadcaster BSkyB, but was secretly exchanging gleeful messages with James Murdoch and his staff.
We all knew what it meant. The emails, the Guardian observed, were likely to “sever the slim thread connecting Hunt to his cabinet job“. “After this he’s toast ‘ it’s over for Hunt,” wrote Tom Watson MP. Ed Miliband said: “He cannot stay in his post. And if he refuses to resign, the prime minister must show some leadership and fire him.” We waited. Hunt remained culture secretary for another four months, then he was promoted to secretary of state for health.
On 2 September 2012, the Guardian revealed that the housing minister, Grant Shapps, had founded a business that “creates web pages by spinning and scraping content from other sites to attract advertising” – a process that looks to me like automated plagiarism. He had been promoting it under the false name of Michael Green, who claimed to be an internet marketing guru. Again it looked fatal. Two days later, in the same reshuffle that elevated Hunt, he was upgraded to Conservative party chairman.
A real Mr Green – Stephen, this time – was ennobled by David Cameron and appointed, democratically of course, as minister for trade and investment. In July 2012, a US Senate committee reported that while Lord Green was chief executive and chairman of HSBC, the bank’s compliance culture was “pervasively polluted“. Its branches had “actively circumvented US safeguards ‘ designed to block transactions involving terrorists, drug lords and rogue regimes”.
Billions of dollars from Mexican drug barons, from Iran and from “obviously suspicious” travellers’ cheques “benefiting Russians who claimed to be in the used car business” sluiced through its tills. Out went dollars and financial services to banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh linked to the financing of terrorists. The Guardian reported that HSBC “continued to operate hundreds of accounts with suspected links to Mexican drug cartels, even after Green and fellow executives were told by regulators that HSBC was one of the worst banks for money laundering.”
Green refused to answer questions and sat tight. He remained in post for another 17 months, until he gracefully retired in December 2013.
After it had become obvious to almost everyone that it was impossible for them to remain in the cabinet, Cameron refused to sack either Liam Fox or Maria Miller. Forgiveness and redemption by all means, but they are not unconditional: without contrition or even acknowledgement that wrong has been done, there is no difference between giving people a second chance and engaging in an almighty cover-up.
There has seldom, in the democratic era, been a better time to thrive by appeasing wealth and power, or to fail by sticking to your principles. Politicians who twist and turn on behalf of business are immune to attack. Those who resist are excoriated.
Here’s where a culture of impossible schemes and feeble accountability leads: to cases like that of Mark Wood, a highly vulnerable man who had his benefits cut after being wrongly assessed by the outsourcing company Atos Healthcare as fit for work, and starved to death – while those who run such companies retire with millions. Impunity for the rich; misery for the poor.
This article was first published by the Guardian on 5 May 2014.
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