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Questions about G4S, the government and securing the Games

Dr Will Jennings is a regular contributor to our ‘Polling Observatory’. He blogs over at Olymponomics.

The private firm at the centre of the row about Olympic security, G4S, has been widely criticised and some of the stories that are appearing from people who received training depict a chaotic process, but a number of questions remain about whether this situation was predictable and avoidable, and whether the government should have known that the assurances being given to it were unreliable. Indeed, this dates back to the under-estimate of the number of private security staff required for the Games in the original bid to the IOC. As far back as 2008 there were fears about a shortage of police manpower for securing the Games, so one would have thought that similar questions might have been asked about the private security industry. But, important questions remain unanswered.

  • Did the government not know that there was a shortage in the private security industry? As far back as April 2011, LOCOG itself reported concern about “A gap in the number of Security Industry Authority licensed private security guards” (p.81). The government is responsible for regulating the private security industry and so must keep a record of the number of individuals licenses as security guards, and from this should have been able to establish whether there was capacity in the sector to cope with the increased numbers required for London 2012 (which had risen from 6,500 in the bid to more than 20,000 according to some reports).
  • Indeed, it is hard to believe that the government was not aware of the issue given that in 2011 it created a special exemption through the ‘Bridging the Gap’ (BtG) programme to deal with this issue: “The BtG initiative was developed to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of qualified people in place to support the security operation at the London Olympics.” The Home Secretary was responsible for the terms of this exemption (intended to provide security training to full-time students to make up the shortage in the industry). Further, the Home Office is astakeholder in the BtG programme. While G4S might be receiving a hammering from the media and politicians at the moment, the problem needs to be put in wider context.
  • Why were penalty clauses not inserted into contract with G4S? One of the questions arising from this situation is why proper controls were not put in place to ensure that the firm delivered the services set out in the contract. This highlights the problem of ‘moral hazard’ all the more because the two actors involved in the contract (LOCOG and G4S) were not exposed to the risk, and government has had to step in to solve the problem when it was not even a party in the original contract — although it clearly was a stakeholder.

In short, given that the Olympics is the largest peacetime security operation that the UK has faced since the war (perhaps ever) and given the unprecedented demand on the private security industry, and given that all this was well known, it is surprising that more questions were not asked about the capacity of the private security industry to deliver the required number of licensed guards (even after special exemptions had been put in place). This is perhaps indicative of an ideological belief (on both sides of the political aisle) in the power of the market to deliver public services, when the reality is that labour markets often work imperfectly and slowly, especially in a specialist sector such as security when the stakes are so high.

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