G4S, a controversial outsourcing firm heavily criticised for its running of youth jails, has been awarded the contract to take over a key government equality helpline for those who have faced discrimination on the grounds of their sex, race, or disability, BuzzFeed News has learned.
In a move that has already been criticised by a union leader, the government has decided to award the running of the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) to G4S in the face of a recommendation by a House of Lords committee to take helpline back in-house.
The service was set up under the coalition government and is currently the responsibility of the Government Equalities Office (GEO), based in the Department for Education and overseen by the new minister for women and equalities, Justine Greening.
The helpline used to be run by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an independent statutory body. In 2011 a government review found that its helpline was not fit for purpose, and in 2012 the new helpline was set up, run by outsourcer Sitel, along with a number of charities.
Among the kinds of cases it has dealt with, as detailed on its website, are:
* A disabled individual who was trying to update banking details through the use of an interpreter at his local high street bank.
* A Trans individual, who had transitioned from male to female, who worked for a security company 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.
* A pregnant woman who was advised by a leading restaurant chain to breast feed her baby in the toilet and not in the restaurant as she was causing offence.
A review published in March this year by the House of Lords committee described how a number of stakeholders "regretted" the decision to outsource the service rather than leave it in the hands of the EHRC, and said it found former education secretary Nicky Morgan's defence of it "surprising". According to the report:
The TUC described it as “a major blow in terms of providing an ability for early resolution of … problems.” The Oxford Transport and Access Group and the National Aids Trust both complained that the outsourcing of the helpline had led to a “side-lining” or “disconnect” between the EHRC and disabled people, and the National Deaf Children’s Society felt that it had led to the EHRC no longer being able to pick up on trends in cases, preventing it from responding effectively.
The committee recommended that the helpline should be returned to the EHRC, but a government response said: "In early discussions between the GEO and the EHRC about the future of the service, the EHRC did not express an interest in taking it “in-house”.
However, the EHRC's response to the report took issue with this version of events, stating: "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."
The commission wrote that it offered to reshape the helpline and re-tender it, but the government rejected the offer, instead offering the EHRC "the right to sit on the project board which will manage the contract once awarded".
The choice of G4S as the contractor is certain to increase the controversy around the decision to continue outsourcing the service. The company most recently hit the headlines for its running of the troubled Medway youth jail, which has been taken back under state control following abuse allegations and a damning government report that found years of warnings were ignored.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, told BuzzFeed News: "G4S's track record ought to disqualify it from taking on such a sensitive contract. With hate crime and discrimination on the rise in the wake of the Brexit vote, we need good quality support services more than ever. We believe this helpline should be brought back in-house and it is deeply disturbing that the government appears to have dismissed this out of hand."
However, Neil Malpas, managing director of G4S Employment Support Services, said: "The EASS helpline is an important access point for people who need advice on their rights under the law and guidance on how best to resolve potential conflicts. G4S already provides similar services with trained and qualified advisers who have the requisite skills to support people facing a difficult time in their lives."
A spokesperson for the Government Equalities Office 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 subject to contact, it will be running the service for three years from October 2016.”