Security firm G4S battered after Olympic mess

With ten days to go before the Olympics, Britain ought to be buzzing. Instead, words like ‘shambles’ are spattered across front pages – and private security firm G4S is to blame.

When Nick Buckles appeared before MPs yesterday, he knew he was in for a humiliating encounter. And sure enough, their verdict was bruising: ‘unacceptable, incompetent and amateurish.’ What had he done to deserve such scorn?

Buckles is the chief executive of G4S, a giant security firm employing 657,000 staff in 125 countries. Its staff guard everything from buildings to celebrities, but much of the work they carry out is in the service of governments. The UK taxpayer alone will pay one billion pounds to G4S this year.

From running prisons to supporting police, G4S plays an increasingly important public role. And when it signed a contract to provide 10,000 staff for the Olympics, it looked set to become an even more visible fixture in British life.

Then, last week, company bosses admitted that they were three thousand guards short. Just a fortnight before the Olympics, a security catastrophe loomed. The military was instantly called in. Soldiers who only recently returned from Afghanistan were torn from their families to fill in the gaps. Now they sleep in tents by a dirty canal, as they are hurriedly trained to search the bags of Olympic tourists.

G4S is in disgrace. Calls for Buckles’ resignation resound across the British media, while his firm’s share price has plummeted by fifteen percent.

This is not the first embarrassment that G4S has faced. When it was first employed to escort prisoners in the early 1990s, a series of escapes caused outrage in the media.

Yet in spite of these failings, the company has ballooned. It now employs 657,000 people – six times more than the British army, and more than the entire population of Luxembourg. In the midst of a financial crisis that has left many businesses struggling, G4S blossomed. And this is no coincidence: as the government makes deep cuts to the public payroll, it looks to private companies as a cheaper alternative.

Private insecurity

This scandal will seriously dent the reputation of G4S. But is it simply about the inadequacies of a single organisation?

No, say opponents, it is far more disturbing: we are selling law and order to the highest bidder. Private security firms are mercenaries who care for nothing but profit. Unlike police, who are motivated by civic duty, private security firms will do no more than they must to fulfil their contract. Can we really trust these firms with our safety and civil rights?

This talk of ‘duty’ is vague and pompous, say free market enthusiasts. Here is a more concrete and effective solution: if G4S is unreliable, give the next contract to another company. That is called competition, they say; it is measurable, adaptable and efficient. And it works.

You Decide

  1. Do you trust police more than private security guards?
  2. Is there any problem with the government paying private companies to fulfil public services?


  1. Imagine you are a soldier who has returned from a war zone to spend time with your family. Suddenly, you are asked to spend weeks living in a tent and searching tourists’ bags. Write a letter to a newspaper calling on Nick Buckles to resign.
  2. Make a list of the responsibilities (if any) that you think the government should never pass on to private companies. Write a paragraph justifying your decisions.

Some People Say...

“Mercenaries are useless and dangerous’ Nicolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527”

What do you think?

Q & A

If private security are replacing police, does that mean they can arrest me?
No. In the UK, security guards have no more power than an average member of the public. Anybody can use some physical force to detain a suspect if they have reason to believe a criminal offence has been committed. Then they must call the police.
So they’re basically harmless?
Perhaps. But there have been concerns about their human rights record, in Britain and elsewhere. In 2010 they received hundreds of complaints over their treatment of asylum seekers at detention centres; later that year, an Angolan died on his way to being deported, after falling unconscious in the plane. Yesterday a court ruled that no charges would be pressed against G4S; but they did find that there had been a serious ‘breach of duty.’

Word Watch

Appeared before MPs
Buckles was called before the Home Affairs Select Committee, a group of MPs responsible for overseeing the work of the government department of the Home Office. Questioned under oath, he said he was ‘deeply sorry’ but that he did not think it was right for him to resign.
Running prisons
Last October, Birmingham Prison became the first privately-run prison in the UK when G4S formally took over its day-to-day management. This was highly controversial, and the debate intensified when it emerged that prisoners had been accidentally locked in their cells for a day after the keys went missing. Another security firm, Serco, recently took over the running of a community service programme.
Share price
This indicates the value of a company according to its investors. In the last few days, many have been selling their shares in G4S because they believe its profits this year will fall.
Cheaper alternative
When the government shifts responsibility for a public service into private hands, this is known as ‘outsourcing.’ Different companies submit proposals for how they will fulfil the need, and the government chooses based on quality and price. This is supposed to ensure better value and efficiency.


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