Law Centres Network demand investigation into G4S Contract

Originally printed in the Guardian

Human rights and equality campaigners are demanding an investigation into the decision to give the contract to run a discrimination helpline to G4S, the scandal-hit global security firm.

A number of organisations, including Liberty, Tell Mama and Inquest, have written to Harriet Harman, the chair of the joint committee on human rights, and Maria Miller, the chair of the women and equalities select committee, to express “profound concern” over the awarding of the contract to run the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) to G4S.

They want the contract, due to begin on 1 October, to be halted until an inquiry is held into both the tendering process and the suitability of G4S to deliver the service properly. They claim that G4S is “manifestly ill-equipped to provide advice on discrimination and human rights” and that the public would be unlikely to have confidence in it.

The Law Centres Network, which represents 40 law centres in the UK and is one of the signatories to the letter, has begun a legal challenge to the tendering process and the awarding of the contract. The charity, which provides free legal advice to people on low incomes, accused the government of failing to properly assess the shortcomings of the EASS with stakeholders and said that it did not properly consider how to reform the service with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which ran it previously.

In March, a House of Lords committee recommended that the government restore the helpline to the EHRC. A number of stakeholders told the committee that the decision to outsource the service had led to a “disconnect” between disabled people and the body charged with advancing equality and human rights. When run by EHRC, it highlighted trends and issues important to them, they said. The matter is scheduled for debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday.

The letter, sent on 5 September and signed by 41 organisations, said the tendering process was flawed, “lacked openness”, and did not require a contractor to have any relevant knowledge or prior skills in delivering equalities or human rights advice. It questioned the appointment of G4S, which it said had “earned a reputation for serious systemic mismanagement and discrimination” and was responsible for human rights violations against those in its care. It highlighted concerns expressed by many MPs over the competence of the security company and included a dossier of serious allegations and findings against G4S.

“These include systemic failings … the repeated findings of racism and sexism among G4S staff, and harrowing official reports of G4S mistreatment of children, pregnant women and other protected groups,” the letter said.

The company most recently came under renewed scrutiny over its running of Medway youth jail, which resulted in the government taking over the jail’s management.

The decision to award the contract to G4S has been criticised by union leaders, and a petition by campaigning platform SumOfUs, urging Justine Greening, the secretary of state for education, women and equalities not to give the contract to G4S but instead to give responsibility back to the EHRC, has received more than 53,000 signatures.

Bella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, said: “The EASS provides expert advice to those who face discrimination – whether refused accommodation because of their race, or sacked from their job because of their age.

“G4S has been responsible for countless human rights violations and the mistreatment … of people in their care. It’s hard to think of a company more ill-equipped to provide this vital service. Liberty joins other equality and rights organisations in demanding that this perverse decision be halted while parliament investigates.”

Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the Law Centres Network, said: “This legal action is about ensuring access to justice for some of the most disadvantaged and often vulnerable people in society. It is already difficult for people to access appropriate advice on discrimination and human rights, which are complex areas of law. Our concern is that the government does all it should to ensure that the most suitable provider is chosen, and that the service is effective.”

Sondhya Gupta, senior campaigner with SomeOfUs.org, described the decision to award the contract to G4S as a “kick in the teeth to everyone who faces disability, race, or sex discrimination”. She added: “With hate crimes and discrimination on the rise in post-Brexit Britain, the kind of support that the EASS provides is now more important than ever.”

A spokesman for the EHRC said: “We think the commission should have been given responsibility for running the service, and that remains our position. However, given that the contract has already been awarded, we are working with G4S and government to provide advice on how the service can best meet the needs of those who experience discrimination or an abuse of their human rights.”

Maria Miller said: “We are aware of the concerns that have been raised on this subject and will consider the matter carefully.”

A spokesperson for the government said: “The Equality Advisory and Support Service is an important source of free advice and support for people facing discrimination or human rights issues. To ensure the service can continue and is run as effectively and efficiently as possible, we ran an open and competitive tender process to identify who is best to take it forward. Following this, G4S has been successful, and it will be running the service for three years from October 2016.”

Neil Malpas, the managing director responsible at G4S for this service, said the company would bring experience gleaned from its work at the DWP helpline for separating parents. “We were awarded the contract on the strength of our work handling other complex call centres including the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) child maintenance options service,” he said. “We have supported that helpline for separating parents over the past three years and feedback from callers and the DWP has been positive.”

For more, read the Law Society Gazette piece