The exposure of G4S and Serco for stealing from the public purse on an industrial scale is symptomatic of privatised Britain. The findings of an initial inquiry that G4S had ‘overcharged’ tens of millions of pounds on electronic tagging contracts for offenders who had moved abroad, died, returned to prison so they were no longer tagged, or had never been tagged in the first place. This was so blatant and so extensive that it cannot conceivably have been due to slip-ups or clerical errors.
Of course it remains to be proven, but if confirmed as expected, this is fraud on the grand scale. Yet the way it has been handled by the government with kid gloves tells a very different tale.
Why were the two companies given the option of a voluntary forensic audit rather than the Serious Fraud Office being immediately involved at the outset? If a trade union had been found with its hand in the public pocket on a similar scale, would it have been granted the lenient option of a voluntary discovery of the facts?
Second, why has it taken so long for the government to notice such rampant cheating at the public expense? When 3,000 of those allegedly tagged were make-believe offenders, one-sixth of the total tagged per day, with some of these non-existent services going back as far as 2005 and maybe even 1999, totalling a loss to the public purse of some £30-40m, how can privatisation conceivably be defended as a more efficient alternative to a public service.
Third, if the facts are as believed, how will those responsible be held to account? Serco has promised to “reimburse any over-billing”. How generous, like Starbucks, found to be paying virtually no corporation tax despite huge profits in the UK, then kindly offers to make a voluntary donation of £20m. If we failed to pay tax, would we be allowed to get away with deciding on our own voluntary penalty? But the key issue is not the money, though it’s important that the penalty should be at least some 5-fold the original sum involved.
The real point is that the companies should be removed from any future public contracts and the executives involved with the stealing over this 14-year period should be identified and, once found guilty, be sent to prison. It should be remembered that several MPs found guilty of making claims from public money for mortgages or other contracts that had already expired were sent to prison, even though the amounts concerned were just a fraction of the money stolen by G4S and Serco.