G4S bosses slammed by MPs for ‘system failure’ at Brook House
Senior executives from G4S were blasted by MPs for not having ‘a grip’ on the crisis at Brook House as exposed by a recent Panorama as they gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee last week as part of its inquiry into the immigration detention centre. Report by Eleanor Sheerin’s earlier report on the Panorama on the Justice Gap here.
Peter Neden, who leads G4S’s business in the UK and Ireland, and Jerry Petherick, responsible for the custodial and detention services business, were criticised for, in the words of the chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee Yvette Cooper, for telling MPs ‘nothing that gives us any confidence that you have a strategy for dealing with this or for understanding how it could happen in the first place’.
Despite the documentary uncovering widespread drug use, mental health issues as well as disturbing instances of abuse by staff, both Neden and Petherick insisted that, whilst they were ‘ashamed and disappointed’ in what they’d seen, ultimately ‘the system does work’. This was quickly undercut by Cooper, the chair of the Committee, who said: ‘You clearly have a system failure to allow those things to happen in the first place.’
After an hour of testimony from Neden and Petherick, Labour MP told them: ‘The answers that you have given do not suggest you have any grip on this at all. None of this suggests you have any idea why this has gone wrong so substantially on your watch – detainees who you had a responsibility towards and yet have been abused while in your custody. You have told us nothing that gives us any confidence that actually have have a strategy for dealing with this or for understanding how it could happen in the first place.’
‘G4S has been through this too many times and been questioned on these issues too many times and for you only to be able to give the same answers you have given before without showing you have a serious grip on dealing with these issues is a matter of very grave concern, given the seriousness of what is happening.’
Both Reverend Nathan Ward, a former G4S employee and whistleblower, and James Wilson of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, disagreed with Neden and Petherick, saying that they were shocked but not necessarily surprised by the revelations. Ward, who also appeared in the documentary, labelled immigration detention a ‘humanitarian crisis’ that needed to be solved by looking at the wider circumstances, rather than just the individuals highlighted in the programme. ‘In terms of what is humane, fair and reasonable to the taxpayer, the system is just not working,’ Wilson commented.
Reverend Ward has been whistleblowing on the management culture at Brook House for 10 years and has approached to two different police forces, as well as ministers, MPs and members of the House of Lords.
Ward claimed that, whilst there was a whistleblowing procedure in place, detainees were too scared of reporting adversely affecting their immigration cases to speak out and staff were afraid of isolating themselves from what is a ‘dominant culture within an organisation’. It is this culture that undoes all of the work put in to an eight-week training course that Ward himself described as ‘comprehensive’. ‘It’s about who breaks first, whether it is the detainee or the Home Office, when it comes to immigration cases,’ said Ward.
Both Ward and Wilson supported calls for a 28-day cap on detention in immigration removal centres. Wilson called it the ‘biggest issue’. The UK is the only country in the EU without a limit on detention in these centres, with some being detained in excess of two years, and both men agreed that the nature of indefinite detention itself, as a concept and as a system, was a ‘central’ factor in the problems at Brook House. ‘There is that sense of the uncertainty and of no recourse – no point when this is going to stop,’ Wilson said. ‘It is constant.’
At the end of last month the Ministry of Justice released their latest statistics: 27,819 entered detention last year which was down 12% from the previous year. Less than half of all detainees (48%) returned or else voluntarily departed from the UK on leaving detention.
According to a survey by Bail for Immigration Detainees published in June, one in three people detention were unaware of the 30 minutes free legal advice they are entitled to and one third of detainees do not have any legal representation. LASPO (the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) scrapped public funding for general immigration work, including preparing and presenting claims to the Home Office as well as deportation appeals.
According to the latest MoJ statistics, more than one third of detainees had been in detention for 29 days or longer. A significant minority (7%) had been locked up for more than four months, including 172 who had been in detention for over a year and 28 for two years or longer. One detainee had been in custody for 1,514 days.
Reverend Ward claimed that G4S might have been making even more profit than the 20% that has recently been reported. ‘I have certainly seen presentations with 30% profit margins put on them,’ he told MPs. He discussed false information being given to the Home Office to create some of this profit, such as assets being charged that would never be bought, or being paid for staff that would never be hired.
When asked about this during his examination, Peter Neden simply said: ‘We can’t disclose how much profit we make on Brook House.’ It was an answer Cooper deemed ‘not acceptable’, given the ‘very serious evidence of abuse and mismanagement taking place’ on a service from which G4S is profiting.
At the end of their examination, both Ward and Wilson told the committee that they shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the Home Office was ultimately responsible for the detention and the safety of the people in detention at that time. The level of collusion between G4S and the Home Office was such that one should not be held to account without the other, they argued. Wilson pointed out that in the last two years, ‘there have been Government commitments to reform detention seriously, and they have not happened at all.’
Both men advocated for an immigration policy that de-emphasises detention. Ward called the policy of detaining immigrants ‘costly and ineffective’, and Wilson said, simply, ‘[p]eople who are vulnerable, for a wide variety of reasons, shouldn’t be detained.’ ‘Immigration is a highly politicised subject at the moment and we have lost sight of the human beings within the system,’ said Ward.
This article was first published on September 18, 2017
Eleanor is an aspiring barrister and currently a legal intern with Global Rights Compliance, an organisation committed to enhancing compliance with international human rights standards