Abi Amey reports on the 2015 G4S AGM
On Thursday 4 June 2015, Will McMahon and I attended the G4S AGM as part of the Reclaim Justice Network. Along with a number of other supporters of the Reclaim Justice Network, we had each purchased a single share in G4S to enable us to attend the meeting. We decided to attend in order to ask questions of the G4S board about the company’s role in imprisonment and criminal justice services in the UK.
Before entry to the venue, shareholders had to pass through an airport style security procedure, during which all phones and electronic devices were confiscated. This seemed to be because G4S feared the filming of any meeting disruptions – as had happened at the 2014 AGM. Despite this, some footage has emerged of the meeting, and can be viewed here.
The AGM began with an introduction from the Chairman of the G4S board, John Connolly, who asserted that no protests aiming to disrupt proceedings would be tolerated. And they weren’t. From the very start, people were removed from the room for disruptions, to protest against G4S’s involvement in prisons in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Most refused to leave and so were carried out by security guards who were instructed to do so by the Chairman of the board.
Witnessing these events was difficult and challenging to say the least. The desire to intervene, and to do something to help the protesters, grew stronger as the meeting went on, and was not easy to ignore when such actions were taking place very close to me.
I had to remind myself throughout that we were simply there to ask questions of the board, and that this was an important and valid way to hold G4S to account. Our questions were all answered by Ashley Almanza, the CEO of G4S, though his replies were mostly evasive and unsatisfactory.
Violence in HMP Altcourse
The first question I asked concerned the high levels of violence in HMP Altcourse, a G4S-run prison. This violence had been highlighted by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, in an October 2014 report, and had been further demonstrated by the tragic killing of Darren Ashcroft, a prisoner in Altcourse, by another inmate in November 2014.
When asked what G4S had done to combat these high levels of violence, Almanza replied that they have changed the management in Altcourse, and have increased frequency of cell inspections to ensure prisoners do not have weapons. He said he recognised that sometimes this makes life harder for prisoners, as they have to be subject to more checks. He declined to comment on the murder of Darren Ashcroft as this is subject to a criminal trial.
Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre
Will McMahon then asked about problems found in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, which was recently rated as ‘inadequate’ in an Ofsted report. The report recommended that the Centre should use force only as a last resort, and to ensure that nurses are present when force is used: clearly these procedures had not been followed properly. Will also highlighted that, comparable to other Secure Training Centres, more children felt unsafe or threatened by others, and that some staff had been at work on drugs in the Centre.
In his reply Almanza focused on the fact that these problems had been detected by G4S before the report. When pressed on how long before the report this had been, Almanza’s reply was ‘many months.’ Of course, he asserted that they had put in place many measures to improve the training centre since, and that they were disappointed by the decline in standards that Ofsted found there. He put a lot of emphasis on the point that they had only found one staff member to be at work while under the influence of drugs – not more than one as had been implied in the report.
Almanza was questioned further as to why these failings occurred, and did not give a satisfactory answer. At first he cited the falling numbers of children held in such centres, as the youth prison population has fallen dramatically in recent years. This, he told us, brought new challenges and difficulties in running Centres. He did not explain what sort of difficulties this presented.
Will pressed him as to why there was such a catastrophic failure in Rainsbrook; or did he not know? He said G4S did know. They had conducted an internal review into this issue. However, Almanza was not prepared to share with us what went wrong inside the management of Rainsbrook that led to these failings.
This was simply one example of the lack of responsibility taken by Almanza for any accusations or failings of G4S that were highlighted. Any accusations were denied, if they could be. If they could not be, other factors were to blame. There was no admission of having got things wrong; the blame was always passed on to others.
Work in Immigration Detention Centres
Another question was asked by Will that concerned paid work schemes for detainees in immigration detention centres, as Home Office figures emerged last August showing that detainees working in them could not have been paid the minimum wage.
Almanza was quick to point out the ‘positive’ nature of work for detainees, saying that these work schemes are over-subscribed because they are so popular in the detention centres. He also admitted that G4S may very well be paying them less than the minimum wage. However, he said the Home Office controlled the rate of pay for detainees in such schemes, and therefore paying them less than the minimum wage was not illegal, so it was fine in his eyes. Of course.
Staffing levels in prisons
Earlier in the AGM, Almanza had expressed the view that he thinks G4S will be more profitable when prisons are safer, for staff and for prisoners. I asked him whether it would not improve safety, and therefore profit, if G4S were to improve staffing levels in prisons – as clearly prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, meaning that prisoners’ safety is jeopardised when there are not enough staff to deal with any issues that may arise.
Naturally, Almanza did not accept that G4S prisons are understaffed. He went on to say that G4S has no control over the number of people who are sent to prison, so cannot do anything about overcrowding. ‘Does G4S not have control over staff levels?’ I asked. He replied that they do not always have control over staff levels, as they must work within the remit and resources of contracts for prisons.
As with all his answers, I found this to be completely unsatisfactory. For the CEO of G4S to deny responsibility for staff levels in prisons run by his company was simply laughable.
Throughout the meeting, Almanza was evasive, dismissive and simply in denial about the many and varied accusations levelled at him about G4S failings. He conveniently used the clause of ‘commercial confidentiality’ several times to avoid questions he did not want to answer, though at other times claimed that G4S was transparent and accountable in its running of prisons, as it operates in a democracy and is contracted by the government.
I did not find this style of reply particularly surprising, though it was frustrating. Nevertheless, it is still important to ask questions and raise the issues, to attempt to hold G4S accountable, even if they evade these questions. When G4S is involved in such controversial work, and when there are people’s lives on the line, we cannot turn a blind eye.