Welfare-to-work companies may be better at ‘playing the game’ than providing services

Among those selected by the government to carry out its welare to work programme are Atos, G4S and Serco - all have dubious records carrying out public sector contracts.

Among those selected by the government to carry out its welare to work programme are Atos, G4S and Serco – companies that have dubious records carrying out public sector contracts.

For example, it was Atos’s healthcare arm that needed to pull out of a ten-year contract to run a GP surgery in London’s east end after three years, as it could not provide the services it promised and was suspended from providing ultrascans for the NHS, due to technical errors and recording patients information incorrectly. Up to 900 patients had to be rescanned.

G4S has a similarly chequered record.

Its security arm, in charge of deporting foreign nationals from the UK, has experienced controversy, as in one week last year when one of its detainees died while being held in custody, and another was found to have suffered:

“…multiple bruising or petechiae (purple skin spots caused by broken blood capillaries) on his torso, back and arms as well as tenderness over his lower abdomen.”

Meanwhile, Serco’s cleaning services at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital were found to be deficient after a Freedom of Investigation request by Australian union United Voice, worried about outsourcing to the multinational in its country.

Six out of eight wards failed to meet hygiene standards at Forth Valley.

A proponent of outsourcing could say that the way forward was obvious: do not renew the contracts involved and let Atos, G4S and Serco face the market consequences. Except this all does leave a puzzle. One reason why outsourcing is meant to work is that instead of government doing lots of jobs mediocrely, it should outsource services specialist companies that are experts in that particular service.

Yet these companies are not specialists in any type of service. Despite not mastering healthcare, detention or hygiene services, they offer dozens of services, that include welfare to work.

What does unite the different services is not what they actually involve, but that they require applying for public sector contracts.  And for that, they hire lobbyists: lots of them.

So Serco have hired Bellenden, Fleishman-Hillard, Four Communications Group Plc and Weber Shandwick, thereby securing meetings with Home Office minister Nick Hurd, Tory party policy chief Oliver Letwin, and defence ministers Charles Hendry and Peter Luff. The circle is completed when a politician is hired by a contract-tenderer, for example when former defence secretary John Reid became a director at G4S.

We have seen recently how we still haven’t got it right on public services outsourcing. One part of the solution is about mkaing sure that those who offer the best services win contracts, not just who are best at the lobbying game.

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