G4S boss faces MPs as-it-happened

By
Nick Buckley, chief executive of G4S, faces MPs amid the Olympic security row
Nick Buckley, chief executive of G4S, faces MPs amid the Olympic security row

10:02 - Good morning. It's the last day before the summer holidays and MPs are about to toddle off home for their seven-week holiday. Westminster is busy doing the washing before heading out - 27 ministerial statements, a bunch of reports which no-one's particularly interested in, that sort of thing. But most eyes will be on Nick Buckles, G4S boss, as he faces the home affairs committee. The company is likely to lose £50 million of its £280 million contract after it proved unable to put the 10,000 security staff it had pledged for London 2012. If you heard his media interviews on Saturday, you'd be worried that they'll make dogs meat out of him. The G4S boss sounds a bit like a surly teenager. He has an internal reputation for his impressive mastery of a wide spectrum of the company's (massive) business interests but that didn't come through at all. He was particularly weak on whether security teams needed to be able to speak English - which seems like a fairly basic requirement. Expect him to get a bit of a mauling today. Kick off is at 12:00 BST.

10:13 - So let's get down to the basics of any political scandal: who knew what when? Theresa May was dragged to the Commons yesterday where she insisted the government had been given no prior warning of the firm's inability to abide by its contractual obligations. However, other voices suggest the government learned there was a problem ten months ago, when HM Inspectorate of Constabulary warned them in a confidential report. Buckles won't be able to elaborate on that. His story and the home secretary's story are roughly the same. May will answer questions on that on September 10th, when she appears before the committee.

10:23 - May told MPs yesterday that the problem wasn't so much a shortage of staff but an inability to get them to the venue. Regardless, troops were sent in as back up while police from Dorset, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Northumbria, South Wales, Strathclyde, West Midlands, Thames Valley and Greater Manchester are now manning the security terminals. Manchester police have been deployed at a Salford hotel where Olympic football teams are staying, for instance, after just 17 of the planned 56 G4S staff turned up. It seems troops and police will take a back role to private security when the Games start, however.

10:34 - It's easy to feel a little sorry for witnesses when they're thrown into the bear pit of a select committee with MPs eager to prove how tough they are, so to prevent you getting too sentimental here are some crucial facts about G4S. Simply put: it is the biggest company you never heard of. It is like the shadowy corporate overlord in a futurist 80's action film. And when I say big I really mean it. Only Wal-Mart employs more people in the private sector (the Chinese army, the NHS and Indian railways are the top three public sector employers, if I remember correctly). It has 657,000 staff, spans five continents and goes under the less-than-reassuring slogan of 'securing your world'. It does security for train stations (those mean-spirited jobsworths who won’t let you on the platform to say goodbye to a friend), children's and old people's homes, banks, high street retailers, prisons, airports, immigration centres and more.


10:49 - This isn't the first time it's found itself in controversy either. In fact, its shareholders meetings are regularly picketed by demonstrators. In 2010, Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga collapsed on a flight from Heathrow. The private security staff who deport failed asylum seekers are regularly criticised for heavy-handed and violent tactics. In 2011 it was criticised for keeping prisoners at a Birmingham jail locked up for 24 hours when they lost cell keys. Rather more charmingly, they also facilitated the breaking of a curfew when they attached a security tag to a man's false leg, which he then happily detached. The 'G4' part of 'G4S' refers to Group 4, which, you may or may not remember, was responsible for a spate of prisoner escapes in the early 90s.

10:59 - If you want a more thorough assessment of the corporate sprawl of limited liability that is G4S check out this link, which someone sent me Twitter (Hat-tip @mattbuck_hack). Particularly interesting is how deeply connected with government departments and local authorities the company is. If Buckles doesn't emerge with some integrity or competence today, all those contracts could be on the line.

11:06 - A final note: the main area of concern is, of course, the Olympics, and the potentially lethal suggestion that the firm may have embarrassed the nation just as it is in the international spotlight. But there is a subplot, which is the use of private companies for public services. Many left-wing commentators have seized on G4S' failure as evidence that the private sector is no more efficient than the public sector at service provision. The right argues that it is no more logical to blame the private sector for this screw up than it is to blame the NHS as an institution for every death-by-negligence in its care. On both sides, columnists and analysts will be looking for evidence that the G4S fiasco has wider lessons for British society.

11:08 - OK, I'll be back at about 11:55 for the session. See you then.

11:57 - OK, we're back. The committee should start in a few minutes.

12:01 - It's a little late. Outside the committee room there is a small crowd of people trying to get in. The room was hosting an earlier event so not all of them are going to get seats. It's a smaller room to the one the committee usually meets in, in Portcullis House. MPs are inside though, around their big semi-circular table. OK, Buckle and Ian Horseman-Sewell, global events specialist, just walked in.

12:05 - Buckle looks like an aging Beatle - McCartney circa 1975. Vaz starts by telling him his company's value has gone down by nine per cent, his chairman isn't exactly supporting him, the home secretary is blaming him and he can't recall a statement in the House where cross party MPs were so concerned by a private sector provider. "Why are you in your post?"

12:07 - Buckle says he needs to see through the contract and is the right person to do it. His future is his third and last concern. Vaz asks whether he will take responsibility. "As CEO of this group, I am accountable for the delivery of the contract," he replies. Vas mocks him for saying he is just "disappointed" by failing its contract. Buckle says he was "deeply disappointed and embarrassed". Vaz: "You're not sorry?" Buckle: "I've already said I'm sorry. Deeply sorry."

12:09 - Vaz points out the company has more employees than Luxembourg has citizens - it also has it's own flag and song. He says the home secretary says she knew of the shortfall on Wednesday. "When did you know?" He was told on July 3rd. Who informed him? David Taylor Smith, the COO. The scheduling system hadn't worked. Vaz says there was no signs - not from Deloittee, HMIC etc? Vaz says it's astonishing, given the importance of the contract.

12:11 - Buckle insists again he only heard of problems on July 3rd. the Deloitte review in April flagged something up - calling for a new governance structure and a better reporting template. SO he did know in April> Buckle gulps down some water. He says they put in place all that report's recommendations. "You k new in April there were problems?" Vaz says. Buckle says it was a backend problem - they hadn't got enough people through "the process", whatever that means. Vaz turns to Sewell, quoting an interview with Rueters, in which he says he was delivering the project. He says he had no idea of the problems until July 6th.

12:14 - Buckle explains when he informed Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games). He says they shared their information with them on a daily basis. On the 11th they told them they were going to fail - at a meeting with the Olympic Security Board. Buckle is asked to speak up very harshly by Vaz, who is being quite the bully. What was it that made him decide there was no hope. Buckle says he was given a straight question - do you think you can deliver these people? And he said no. Was he never asked that question? He says it took him eight days to make that judgment.

12:16 - Labour MP David Winnick says the reputation of the company is now in tatters. Buckle says right now he agrees. "It's a humiliating shambles isn't it?" Winnick says. "It's not where we want to be," Buckle says. "It's a humiliating shambles isn't it - yes or no?" Winnick says. "I cannot disagree with you," Bucklee replies.

12:18 - Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert starts up. He says the company comes up a lot for the committee, especially abuse by its staff of deported asylum seekers - "so you must be used" to controversy. Good old Huppert, he was bound to get that jab in. Why didn't Locog mention it to ministers? Buckle says that's not his business to say. "You don't want to get into more trouble?" Huppert asks. Buckle smiles and nods. Vaz says he's troubled. He says Sewell was brung as person most involved with the bid. Why didn't he tell him there was a problem for three days? Who did he tell? "I think everyone knew at that stage" Buckles says. Sewell is forced to change what he said slightly - he did know, but not from Buckles. Vaz starts to tear him apart. He tries t talk about "our assessment" prompting Vaz to say: "Forget about your assessment." So Sewell did know there were problems - why did he boast to Rueters that he could deliver two Olympics at the same time. "I sincerely believed at the time we cold do that." Vaz: "So you did not k now." Sewell: "I knew there were problems."

12:24 - Buckles is told the loss was a pittance. They clearly didn't see it as a problem. Also, the failure was competence, not complexity. Buckles says its five per cent of their profits, so it is a significant amount of money, the sum they lost on the contract. "People in this country are sick of huge corporations like yours thinking they can get away with a anything," Buckles is told - by a Tory MP.

12:26 - MP Lorraine Fullbrook is asking questions. She asks when they started recruiting. He says their model only lets them start doing it this year. So they didn't know they could deliver 2,000 staff? And yet last year they agreed to supply 10,400. What systems did they have for monitoring those personnell. Buckles explains the application/interview/training system. Buckles isn't sure when they started contacting the staff this year. What was the contingency plan for people who were retained but not being paid - and therefore got jobs. Buckles says they used a pipeline process for that reason. Again the pair is asked if they should have signed the contract while not being sure they could deliver. Sewell tries to answer, uncertainly. Vaz bullies him some more. Then he says: "We were extremely confident at providing the 2,000 because" they do that every weekend.

12:33 - Buckles explains his shock at the July 3rd realisation they were going to fail. He was on holiday but returned that same day. The COO had already taken personal control. he put a senior team together and they worked tirelessly to get the contract sorted. Had they made assumptions about 'no-show'. Buckles says the 'no-show' rate is 90%, then corrects himself and says 10%. This is not a turn up rate problem, it's a lack of staff problem, he says. Vaz interjects when Buckles hedges about the first day of the Olympics going to plan. It's brutal stuff. "We have a significant manpower shortage against the plan and that will manifest itself from this day forward to the Games," he says. Vaz: "Should we have more people on standby?" Buckles says no, not at the moment. SO what's changed to enable you to make that statement? Buckles says they're working together with the police. SO it will be possible more staff won't turn up at hotels when the need arises. "We need to manage that on a day to day basis." Vaz says that's not an answer and he can't give the assurances the committee seeks. "I can't no," Buckles admits.

12:38 - Buckles is told all the complaints of the employees - spending money on training, uniform, 80 minute phone calls to find out about training. "It doesn't sound like a caring and well-managed operation does it. I'm asking about the way you run your company and the people you employ." Buckles is not answering very well, he speaks in broad terms. The committee MP says even David Blunkett, who is not exactly soft on immigration, complained they did not treat failed asylum seekers humanely.

12:43 - Buckles is told these shortages are the result of bad treatment of staff and low pay. Quite the morality story. Buckles pretty much admits they won the contract on harsh employment conditions for staff. Basically these guys were being paid £8.50 although Sewell adds those who stick around for the whole thing get a 'completion bonus'.

12:47 - Buckles makes some relatively significant concessions. He says they pay staff for training, if they turn up for work. He also promises to reimburse police for their extra work. Doubt he'll be around to implement them. He is asked if he should have signed the contract in the first place. "Clearly we regret signing the contract, but now have to get on and deliver it," he says. "Now we've got to get on and deliver it."

12:50 - Buckles says he really took the contract for - ironically - reputational reasons, rather than profit. Winnick reads an email from a dad who was taken on for security work. But there was no contact about training, then he used the helpline and got no information. "I can't comment on that specific," Buckles says. Vaz urges him to contact on the general point - they've all received emails. "A hundred thousand people applied, it's been a challenge," Buckles says. Winnick says G4S is trying to get police contracts. "There would be a great deal of apprehension from ordinary people that you should get police contracts," Winnick says. Buckles defends himself saying they do good work on police contracts.

12:53 - Buckles is read more emails about how hard it is to get information from G4S. "I need to look at the particular case but overall this should be part of our review," he says.

12:55 - Buckles tries his best to separate G4S' general public service work from the Olympics, which was "a completely different sort of contract". Vaz says that "does not give this committee satisfaction... The Olympics does not happen very often in London."

12:58 - Buckles admits they haven’t gone into the full details on how that £50m loss is going to occur. Vaz asks why they don't just waive the contract. The £10m profit is gone, he admits. Vaz asks if they will claim their management fee. "Yes," Buckles says. "Vaz: "Why? You haven't managed." Buckles admits he doesn't even know what it is. Sewell says it's £57m. Vaz: "And you still think you ought to claim it?" Buckles: "Yes." Vaz: "I find that astonishing."

13:04 - Buckles is asked what he will pay - accommodation costs to police, military etc. He says yes, uncertainly. Vaz asks if he is making these decisions on the spot. He answers uncertainly, prompting Vaz to tell him that he is speaking to a committee of the House and will be held to his answers. Fullbrook says she's "amazed" he knew about this since July 3rd and is still so lost.

13:05 - This is an absolute car crash for Buckles. We've seen some desperate witnesses during the phone-hacking scandal and Libor - the very worst of the worst from the Met, News International, the tabloid press and the banking industry. This must be one of the very worst. MPs are grandstanding, certainly. But it's just 'shooting-fish-in-a-barrel-' time really. Buckles is all over the place and deeply unconvincing.

13:09 - Buckles confirms they now have the completion bonus to encourage staff to turn up throughout the Games - it's a pound an hour for every hour worked, incremental to wage. Is that sufficient? Buckles says yes. "Are you satisfied you actually know what's going on in your own company?" He's reminded he didn't know whether they had to speak English. Buckles says he was asked if they could speak 'fluent English', and he didn't know what that was. Vaz interjects to bully him some more: "You don't know what fluent English is?" Buckles: "No." Vaz: "What do you think you're speaking now." It's just outright bullying now. The room is laughing at Buckles.

13:13 - Bridget Pillipson tells Buckles she gets the impression he is just "making it up as you go along". That's pretty accurate. Buckles again admits he doesn't know how many staff will be there on first day of Olympics. He blabbers about 'expectations' for a while. "Expectation is not a comforting word when we're addressing the biggest sporting even in the world," Vaz says.

13:17 - Good little video here of troops in the Olympic park laughing at the Buckles evidence.

13:18 - Sewell wants to "venture something on data". He says the demand on G4S for cycling was 38 people at 09:00BST. Yesterday, as they looked through planning they predicted they would provide 50%. And 17 people showed up. His suggestion is they are getting it right. Well, that they are predicting the extent to which they got it wrong right.

13:21 - It really is hard to remember a more humiliating witness testimony. Sewell takes over for a bit while Buckles looks sadly at his lap. As Anne Treneman of the Times just pointed out: "I keep having to remind myself that Buckles makes £825,000. Vital to remember..." And on it goes.

13:24 - Vaz goes over the dates again. He learned on the 3rd, and informed the Home Office last Wednesday. Buckles mentions a daily meeting from the 4th or 5th of July. Vaz asks had he seen the HMIC report months in September or in February- they had seen the Deloitte report. Vaz says he wants a copy. Vaz wants more information about whom they dealt with regularly - James Brokenshire (a junior minister) is the response. How often? It's unclear, but minutes will be forthcoming. Vaz says the number of contracts with the Home Office alone is worth half a million. He asks if there is a question about their general ability to deliver.

13:28 - Buckles says they have check-ups on this. Vaz now asks about Jimmy Mubenga, the asylum seeker abused by Buckles' staff who later died. While no-one will be charged the Crown Prosecution Service cited the lack of training for staff. Buckles isn't aware of that. Vaz: So you won't be aware of mistakes at other immigration centres? Buckles says he would, because they get information. A deeply unsatisfying answer.

13:30 - Winnick is back on the warpath telling Buckles he "failed totally". Will there be any hesitation of taking over contracts on police work? Buckles says they only undertake back office and middle office functions. He ignores there is no definition of that term, as does everyone else. David Taylor Smith wrote to Vaz earlier this month listing the functions they might take over, saying there's quite a lot of things there. They're actually building the police station in Lincolnshire.

13:33 - Buckles is asked if he might apply for security at the Brazil World Cup. Nope! That was a recent decision - "as of last week". Vaz says he asked members of the committee to use one word to describe his appearance. The responses were: "unacceptable", "incompetent" and "amateurish". Ouch. He adds: "In the end it is a matter for you to decide what you want to do about your future." And with that the session ends.

13:37 - MPs loved that - real open goal stuff. It is not always appetising watching them grandstand but that was as poor a performance by a select committee witness as I've ever seen. Good note to end the term on. As I said earlier, this is the last day of parliament, so we probably won't be doing any more live blogs for a while - barring a major war or urban riots, of course. We'll still be providing all the usual features, comment and news though, so stick around. Avoid holidays. They'll only disappoint you.
 

Comments

Load in comments