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Another contract to the Tories’ friends at Serco

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Serco is often a failure, yet this government continues to give it contracts to run public services.  What a disgrace.

Serco is the company which recently agreed to repay the government £68.5 million for overcharging on electronic tags.  Along with G4S (another Tory favourite – remember the Olympics fiasco?), Serco was charging the government for electronic tag fees for people who were either dead, back in prison, or abroad. Even the Tory Justice Secretary Mr Grayling MP was forced to admit that his Department had known about the problem for years, and that:  “In some instances, charging continued for a period of many months and indeed years after active monitoring had ceased.”

Now, the Home Office has just handed a £70 million contract to Serco, giving it another 8 years to continue to run the Yarl’s Wood – the largest detention centre for women who are faced with deportation.  It houses 400 detainees. 

The Home Office announced that Serco was the preferred contractor, following a “comprehensive re-tendering process”.  A Home Office spokesperson claimed:  “Serco’s bid demonstrated its offer was the best in meeting quality and cost criteria, and providing value for money for the taxpayer.”

Well, that may be true, in as much as Serco was the best – of a bad lot … because perhaps the others were even more rotten.  You could not even call the company controversial:  everyone knows it’s a cheating failure.  It’s been condemned by penal reformers, by refugee support groups, and by MPs on the independent Home Affairs Select Committee.  It just goes to show that these sensitive public services should be run by the state, not by private companies who too often cut corners to turn a fat profit.

Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Ms Yvette Cooper MP commented that the government should not have agreed this contract until after an independent inquiry had been held into the centre’s operation.  She said:  “It is important that immigration rules are enforced, but they must be enforced in a humane way which upholds the values of our society.  Too often Serco’s Yarl’s Wood operation appears to have fallen below the high standards we would expect.” 

I agree:  no contract should have been awarded.  Instead, the work should have been taken back in-house by the government.

Serco’s managing director of home affairs James Thorburn said:  “We understand the challenges of looking after vulnerable and concerned people and we recognise the responsibility that we have in managing the centre in a caring and efficient manner.” 

No they don’t.

Look at how Serco performed when they had the initial contract for this centre.  Their staff were accused of:

  • sexual misconduct; and
  • women locked up for long spells; and
  • pregnant women held without justification

Whilst almost 90% of the detainees in Yarl’s Wood are women, almost 50% of the staff are men.  That’s a recipe for the very sorts of problems which Serco had.  Two members of staff were sacked for having sexual relations with a detainee; an abuse of power and taking advantage of vulnerable women.  Another member of staff was sacked for failing to act when the detainee reported the sexual misconduct by the two staff.  The risk was obvious, and it’s an institutional failure by Serco that they allowed it to occur.

None of the detainees at Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire has been charged with an offence.  Yet prison inspectors have found:

  • many detainees have been held for long periods – one for almost four years; and
  • women with mental health problems being detained; and
  • pregnant women had been held without evidence of exceptional circumstances required to justify their captivity, one of whom had been admitted to hospital twice because of pregnancy-related complications.

Earlier this year, almost unbelievably, a UN investigator was not allowed to go into Yarl’s Wood, despite repeated requests.

I agree with Natasha Walter of Women for Refugee Women.  She said:  “We have spoken directly to women who say they were abused by Serco staff in Yarl’s Wood, and we have heard how women’s privacy is constantly invaded by male staff in the detention centre.  Serco is clearly unfit to manage a centre where vulnerable women are held and it is unacceptable that the government continues to entrust Serco with the safety of women who are survivors of sexual violence.”

Rob Marris, Labour Candidate for Wolverhampton South West

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