The government allowed only six companies – none of which had any background in human rights work – to bid for the contract to run its helpline for those who have faced discrimination on the grounds of their sex, race, or disability, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Two of the companies – including the eventual winner, G4S – have in fact been criticised in the past over their human rights record.
In July it was revealed the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS), a helpline based in the Department for Education, had been outsourced to G4S despite opposition from the House of Lords and stakeholders who wanted the service brought back in-house.
According to Freedom of Information documents, Justine Greening's department put the contract out under a framework created by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which limited the number of organisations allowed to bid to six.
BuzzFeed News understands that besides G4S, the other firms in the running were: Serco, which has been criticised over its track record running immigration detention centres; the construction giant Balfour Beatty; Capita, which has been criticised over its NHS contracts; the telemarketing and outsourcing firm Sitel; and the software and business provider Agilisys.
The revelations surrounding the deal drew criticism from Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Service Union (PCS), who said: "There needs to be a fundamental shake-up of how these deals are done, as the EASS case shows how huge and controversial companies like G4S can be handed multimillion-pound contracts without any public scrutiny or accountability. It is utterly undemocratic and puts all the cards in the hands of private companies that have shown time and again can't be trusted to run our public services."
G4S, however, has said it would welcome scrutiny into how it won the contract, in response to calls from campaigners for a parliamentary inquiry and a judicial review. The company is likely to face resistance from campaigners, but in a statement posted to the firm's website Neil Malpas, the managing director of G4S Employment Support Services, defended the decision.
Malpas said: "It’s clearly for the government to answer for its process, but from our perspective, this was a highly competitive and intensive examination which required the delivery of multiple submissions, ranging from financial modelling to operational plans and detailed question responses. In our experience, all government contracts are rigorously policed, and this was no exception."
However, the public accounts committee has in the past criticised the prescribed way in which government departments carry out their commissioning. In 2014 it concluded that the outsourcing market was "dominated" by just a few contractors, and "the government is exposed to huge delivery and financial risks should one of these suppliers fail".
Tom Gash, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, told BuzzFeed News: "What’s vital is that government recognises the need not just for generic experience of running call centres but the need for specialist expertise in advising the public on sensitive human rights issues."
Gash suggested: "A more creative approach to this service might have involved canvassing a broader range of organisations with appropriate expertise – the Samaritans or other charities spring to mind – or encouraging close partnerships between companies with experience of running call centre operations and specialist charities used to working with those who will use services most."
Malpas, however, said: "Many NGOs have asked why it was that the framework agreement under the procurement process only allowed for six companies to bid, and why 'not-for-profit' or third-sector suppliers failed to make the list. Again, it’s for the government to defend its selection process, but under European law all government services put out to tender have to be formally advertised.
He went on: "Any procurement process that did not involve some element of pre-qualification would likely receive hundreds if not thousands of proposals, potentially from around the world, each of which would require an even-handed process of evaluation. For contracts such as the EASS helpline, this would be both impractical and financially prohibitive."
Gash also questioned the value for money provided by the contract: "There should be plenty of efforts to get feedback from users on what the service was like – and collecting that can’t be left solely to G4S. In this case, we don’t know how DWP is rewarding G4S because government still isn’t transparent enough about its contractual arrangements."
Martin Bramall from We Own It, an organisation that campaigns against privatisation, described the government's approach to procurement as "one-dimensional". He said: "Time and again decisions are made on simple cost basis. The government could be doing more to make sure that a company's track record, the quality of the service, or the impact awarding a contract could have on a community or the environment are taken into account."
Malpas said: "We are not deaf to the volleys of criticism sent our way over our decision to take on the EASS helpline, and recognise that we will be graded on a severe curve for our performance given issues faced in other parts of our business. But in our existing work for the DWP we have a demonstrable track record in serving the taxpayer, both in providing a reliable and efficient resource, but more importantly doing that with the respect and sensitivity that people in dangerous or threatening circumstances deserve."
A government 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, amongst providers who had expertise in running a helpline. The contract requires G4S to ensure all staff have the necessary training to offer guidance and support on equality and human rights to customers.”
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alan White at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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