Labour has written to justice secretary David Gauke to express concern over the appointment of a new minister who previously worked for the outsourcing giant Serco – which is under criminal investigation for overcharging Gauke's own department.
Edward Argar, who was announced as a junior justice minister last week, was head of public affairs at Serco for three years until August 2014. The company, which runs five private prisons and transports 24,000 prisoners a month to court on behalf of the Ministry of Justice, is currently being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over a contract to provide electronic monitoring, or "tagging", of prisoners.
In 2013 Serco agreed to pay £68.5 million for overcharging the MoJ. There were allegations the government had been billed for the electronic monitoring of people who were still in jail, were not tagged anymore, or were even, in a few cases, dead.
Both Serco and another provider, G4S, were stripped of responsibility for the contract, and the matter was referred to the Serious Fraud Office. Another outsourcing firm, Capita, took over.
In 2013 Serco also had to pay back £2 million over claims of fraud around its prisoner transfer contract. There is no suggestion Argar was personally involved in either case.
The letter, sent on 15 June by shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon, says: "It is essential that government ministers can command public confidence that they are capable of holding such companies [as Serco] to account."
It goes on to ask whether "Mr Argar will be involved in any way in liaising on behalf of the Ministry of Justice with the Serious Fraud Office about the ongoing investigation" or "dealing with any of the ministry's contracts with Serco in his new ministerial capacity".
Burgon told BuzzFeed News: "Nobody is saying that the minister himself has done anything wrong but it is in the public interest that the government clarifies what dealings Mr Argar will have with Serco in his new ministerial capacity."
Argar was given the post following the resignation of Dr Phillip Lee, who quit over the government's attempts to limit parliament's role in Brexit. There is no suggestion his appointment breaches parliamentary rules or procedures.
Things only got worse for the MoJ over tagging in the years that followed – in January 2018 a damning report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee described the programme – by this point five years late and £60 million over budget – as "a catastrophic waste of public money which has failed to deliver the intended benefits."
The MoJ and Serco both declined to comment when approached by BuzzFeed News.
The full letter reads:
Dear Secretary of State,
I am writing about the appointment of Edward Argar MP yesterday as a Justice Minister following the resignation of Dr Phillip Lee earlier this week.
Press reports today state that Mr Argar was formerly Head of Public Affairs in the UK and Europe for Serco, the outsourcing giant. A Serco spokesperson confirmed to the media that Mr Argar was employed there for over three years until August 2014.
As you know, Serco plays a significant role in our justice system, including by running five private prisons and in transporting 24,000 prisoners per month to court through the Prison Escort Contract.
The role of the private sector in our justice system is increasingly contentious given the widespread performance failings, for example in the probation service and in detention centres for young people such as Oakhill.
Serco itself has a controversial record in our justice system. It is currently under criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for overcharging in an offender tagging contract. In 2013 it was forced to repay £68.5m to the Ministry of Justice after having charged for tagging offenders, some of whom had died or were back in prison. In addition, Serco previously had to repay £2m to the Ministry of Justice after being found to have falsely recorded prisoners as having been delivered to court on time.
It is essential that government ministers can command public confidence that they are capable of holding such companies to account, that the interests of the public, and not the profits of the corporations, are being put first and that there is no perceived conflict of interest.
Given this could you confirm whether Mr Argar will be involved in any way in liaising on behalf of the Ministry of Justice with the Serious Fraud Office about the ongoing investigation or will be dealing with any of the Ministry's contracts with Serco in his new ministerial capacity?
Richard Burgon MP
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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