Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
G4S, which has a record of mismanagement in Britain, faces scrutiny in the press and from lawmakers.
This week, London got some clues as to why its streets will soon be crawling with soldiers. It’s not solely because the upcoming Olympic Games bring major security risks in their wake, and it doesn’t necessarily stem from an official yen to reshape the city along the lines of 1980s Warsaw. Essentially, soldiers are being so heavily deployed because the military is both cheap and ready, while the Games’ main private security firm, G4S, is neither.
As Atlantic Cities reported yesterday, G4S has just admitted it may not be able to provide the number of guards it promised Games organizers. Now soldiers, potentially up to 3,500, will be drafted in to plug the gap.
G4S isn’t getting away with this blunder. This morning, Britain’s Security Minister confirmed that G4S will be stripped of some of its £535 million fee. What makes G4S’ screw-up so total is that they didn’t admit their problems until a fortnight ago, and have failed to recruit enough staff despite high unemployment and seven years of advance notice. Now, like the extra 500 staff rushed in to cut queues at Heathrow, the soldiers recruited to fill the security gap will have to muddle through with hasty, limited security training at best. Probably bedded down in school halls and other temporary venues, some will have come straight from Afghanistan while others may have been merely halted on their route to redundancy. All this hardly makes for a smiley, happy workforce.
G4S’ failure isn’t the first major mistake for the company, the world’s largest security firm by revenue. The huge Anglo-Belgian/Danish firm is a sort of Euro-Halliburton, involved in anything from guarding U.S. nuclear facilities to "executive style life support" in Afghanistan. Back in the ‘90s, G4S became a laughing stock when it let four prisoners escape during its first week of managing convict transport, and it remains one of Britain’s most controversial companies. It has been accused of skulduggery in trying to acquire prison management contracts, received over 700 complaints from the illegal immigrants it has handled and even allegedly caused the death of one -while at the same time receiving a lucrative £30 million contract to house Britain’s asylum seekers.
Its Olympic difficulties have not come without penalties, however. The company's share price fell 2.38 percent in early trading today and a media backlash is making sure the hammer falls on G4S rather than the government. Loading all guilt onto its shoulders still seems like scapegoating, as critics have been asking tough questions about G4S’ suitability for some time, to general government obliviousness. The company’s bosses have been summoned to appear before MPs next week, their future plans to take over sections of Britain’s police now possibly on hold. It’s not unlikely they’ll try to pass the buck of their failures onto their colleagues in government.
Top image: Luke MacGregor/Reuters