G4S is in the news again. The outsourcing company has agreed to pay back almost £109m to the government as a settlement for its overcharging hugely on its contract to tag offenders. It had offered £24m. Serco, which shared the contract, has given back £70.5m. Both companies, we're told, still face investigation by the Serious Fraud Office, and neither can bid for the flogged-off probation contracts currently out for tender. G4S is in deep financial trouble. But, you may say, is that it? Is no one going to be charged with criminal offences? After all, benefits cheats are in court very quickly. I doubt it.
There are several reasons why the government would not want a court case. The relationship between people in government and those running these outsourcing companies is not the standard one of purchaser and provider; there is a much greater degree of mutual self-interest. You don't want to put your mates in court. These two companies in particular have been crucial to the government's exercise in creating private wealth out of public services. And suppose there were charges. They could plead guilty, and that would save embarrassment. We've seen what happened, on a very, very much smaller scale with A4e. The employees who pleaded guilty have not yet been sentenced. That may not happen until the second batch have been tried in October. If they plead guilty as well, we will never know the details of what they did, and what pressures or incentives they were under. The G4S and Serco cases could follow that route, sparing the public the details of their contracts. It wouldn't do for us to know how those contracts, and the monitoring of them, allowed the firms to overcharge on this massive scale. If they pleaded not guilty, all that would have to come out. The government wants this out of the way as soon as possible, and the companies back in the ring bidding for more juicy contracts. Grayling had to cancel altogether the privatisation of a batch of prisons because the only bidders were G4S and Serco.
More secrets. We are used to this government suppressing information if it goes against its narrative of great success in "welfare reform". So it's no surprise to learn from Channel 4 News that it sat on a report which showed, according to independent experts appointed by the DWP, that the Work Programme isn't working. That's hardly news, you might say. But this report came out last September and a decision was taken to suppress it "at a ministerial level", and we know what that means. All the things which critics said would happen, particularly "creaming and parking", are still going on. Sanctions are not helping anything, says the report. And the providers themselves, or 58% of them, think the WP is not helping or worse. The DWP apparently said, "The reality is that the Work Programme is working." That's the point at which the secrets turn into lies.
For a straightforward untruth we turn to the narrative on food banks. The DWP has always insisted that it doesn't refer people to food banks. There's a good reason for that. It needs to deny that food banks have become part of the welfare state, or, indeed, that they are needed at all. But now we have the evidence, thanks to the Guardian, that there is official guidance to jobcentres on how to give out vouchers, and one of the documents is entitled "Foodbank Referral Service". That has now been modified; "referral" has become "signposting". And they mustn't refer to the vouchers as vouchers. (Orwellian newspeak is thriving at the DWP.) There's a significant paragraph in the article: "The documents show each jobcentre is told to write down how many people have been sent to food banks on a 'slip record sheet', even though the DWP has said: 'Food banks are not part of government policy and, as such, the Department for Work and Pensions does not hold or collect information on their usage.'"
What was it David Cameron once said about being the "most transparent government ever"?