The controversial outsourcing company G4S has said it would "welcome" scrutiny into how it won a contract to deliver a key government equality helpline, in response to calls from campaigners for a parliamentary inquiry and a judicial review.
In July BuzzFeed News revealed that G4S had been awarded the contract to take over the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS), a helpline based in the Department for Education and overseen by the minister for women and equalities, Justine Greening. The helpline deals with those who have faced discrimination on the grounds of their sex, race, or disability.
The service details a number of cases it has dealt with on its website, including a "disabled individual who was trying to update banking details through the use of an interpreter at his local high street bank," a "pregnant woman who was advised by a leading restaurant chain to breast feed her baby in the toilet", and a "Trans individual ... who had transitioned ... and reapplied for a security pass only to discover that the process for renewing her pass had disclosed the fact she had undergone gender reassignment surgery".
Now a coalition of 41 human rights and equality organisations including Liberty and Tell Mama have written to the chair of the joint committee on human rights, Harriet Harman – as well as the chairs of the women and equalities select committee, the public accounts committee, and the home affairs select committee – calling for an investigation into the awarding of the contract. G4S is also facing a legal challenge from the Law Centres Network charity, which has issued a Letter Before Action to Greening.
Liberty – which, it appears, will be a "key partner" with G4S if the company takes over the EASS – has also produced a dossier collating the firm’s reported failings on human rights and equality in the UK.
It highlights such cases as a 15-year-old girl at G4S’s Medway secure training centre claiming in 2011 that she had been left all night in her room after having a miscarriage and was not taken to hospital for a week and a half, and the fact that racist text messages were found on the phones of the security guards involved in the unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga – a 46-year-old Angolan man who was restrained to death in 2010.
There have been concerns raised over the background to G4S's winning bid. The helpline used to be run by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an independent statutory body, but was outsourced in 2012 in a move prompted criticism from a number of stakeholders. A review published in March this year by the House of Lords described former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s defence of the decision “surprising” and recommended it should be brought back in-house.
The government, however, said the EHRC "did not express an interest" in doing so – but the EHRC wrote to the committee to say: “Contrary to the government’s response to the committee, the commission made clear to the government that we would like to take back responsibility for overseeing the EASS or, at the least, have a greater level of control over its operation.”
BuzzFeed News has seen one of the tender documents produced by the government. It lists Liberty – one of the organisations that has written to Harman – as a "key partner" to whom users of the helpline could be referred. It is understood that six other companies went through the framework process to be able to tender, including the outsourcing giants Serco and Capita; Sitel, which ran the helpline since 2012; and the construction firm Balfour Beatty.
Neil Malpas, the G4S managing director responsible for the service, said: "We would welcome and support any review of the tendering process for the EASS helpline, which in our view was conducted very openly, professionally and competitively.
"We were awarded the contract on the strength of our work handling other complex call centres including the Department of Work and Pensions' child maintenance options service. We have supported that helpline for separating parents over the past three years and feedback from callers and the DWP has been positive.
"We will bring that experience to the Equality Office's advisory service and ensure that our team has the knowledge, skills and training to provide clear, supportive and practical advice to people who turn to this helpline when they are concerned they have been discriminated against."
A Department for Education spokesperson 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.”
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 and even unlawful killing of people in its 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.”