Blame Games: The Olympics security debacle

The Home Office and Locog, the Games organisers, say G4S is responsible for the security panic over London 2012. But the problem dates back to political decisions made in 2010. And a picture emerges of G4S using slipshod methods and chaotic organisation which resulted in troops being called up

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Indy Politics

Never did one expect to see the country up in arms over a lack of jobsworths. But the modern obsession with security – regularly fuelled by the outrages of fanatics – means that no event can take place without an army of bag checkers, patrollers and access-deniers. And, since no event is bigger than the Olympics, it needs them in their many thousands.

What has caused the present hoo-ha is just how many thousands of security staff are needed, who miscalculated this number at the planning stage, and the failure to recruit and train enough staff when the true scale of the operation was finally appreciated. The received wisdom is that it is all the fault of the contractor, G4S, but inquiries show this is not the whole story. Along with the security company, the Home Office and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog) have serious questions to answer. They are – as next week's and September's parliamentary hearings will, no doubt, discover – all part of the same relay team.

As of today, there are 12 days to go to the opening ceremony; or, in other words, it is seven years and nine days since the Games were awarded to London – ample time, you might think, to recruit, train and establish the security staff. In 2010, it was calculated that the Games would need 10,000 security personnel. G4S was contracted to provide 2,000 of these. The Home Office, having overall responsibility both for security in Britain and specifically for the Olympics, would have been involved in calculating these numbers.

The following year the number was more than doubled to 23,700, and the G4S contract was amended to supply 10,400. Sources at Locog say the numbers were substantially revised after an audit they conducted "over several months" in 2011 "revealed the scale of need for security in areas other than the main venues".

Several mysteries remain unexplained. The first is why the original calculation was so low, and the revised one so different – matters for which Locog and the Home Office will have to answer. Second, is why this realisation came so late in the preparations for the Games. There were, after all, several warnings, not the least of them a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in March this year. The MPs' report said it was "staggering" that initial estimates about security costs were so wrong, and added that Locog was forced to renegotiate its contract with G4S for venue security from a "weak negotiating position".

Despite G4S's much larger undertaking, at no stage until recent days did it indicate it had bitten off more than it could chew – which raises questions not only about its methods and competence, but also about the monitoring of the firm's performance – or lack of it – by Locog and the Home Office. The authorities, said Home Office minister James Brokenshire, were given "robust assurances" by G4S that all was well, and these were accepted – a case of blithely taking a contractor's word at face value, which not even the most naive householder having a new kitchen fitted would do.

And so, four days ago, a cascade of G4S's failings and inadequacies began to come to light – some admitted, some still unconfirmed. So short were they of trained personnel that 3,500 troops have been put on standby, many of whom have had to cancel family holidays. Along with this shortfall, came other claims: of slipshod selection procedures; hired staff still not allocated shifts and tasks; recruits who cannot speak English; and much else besides.

Yesterday, we spoke to a worker at the G4S training and recruitment centre in Stratford, east London, who would not be named for fear of losing his job. He said: "It was quite evident from the start that there wasn't really any system in place … documents would fester in drawers for quite a while. Birth certificates would be filed in a drawer, and then no one would know how to find that person's address any more because they were not logged on the system. Senior G4S staff weren't really aware quite what a shambles it was.

"The most disturbing thing is that candidates who've failed screening and vetting then seem to be called up in order to book them in for training. That is a regular occurrence – it's not every day, but it does happen. It just shows how the different parts of the system don't really relay information to the other parts.

"There's no way the company will meet its targets. I'll say they will be at least 3,500 short. We've known for months that the targets would not be reached … You'd come across candidates who'd applied in January, not heard anything until April, and then were still in the screening and vetting process in June … I just don't think G4S fully realised the size of the task they were taking on.

"People would send in passports and they'd be photocopied and sent back, but staff wouldn't have put them through this scanning machine, which is what makes sure they are a real passport. They weren't told about this machine until they'd been doing the job for about two months. So then they'd have to ring them up and ask them to send it in again. People have been booked in for training – they are coming down from Glasgow, Manchester, wherever, and then they get rung up to say training's been cancelled and they are halfway down the country. It would be comical if it didn't happen so often."

Nick Buckles, the G4S chief executive, said yesterday that it was only eight or nine days ago that the firm realised it could not supply the numbers required. What he did not say was why the firm could not fulfil the contract and why it woke up to this so belatedly. He said 100,000 candidates applied and 50,000 were interviewed, adding: "It's only when you get closer and closer to the Games you realise the number isn't as high as you expect." He insisted the firm had been transparent with the Government and Locog "for days now".

Asked if all the staff G4S had recruited could speak fluent English, Mr Buckles said it was a "difficult question to answer". Overall, he said, the contract had been "a bigger challenge than expected". He is, he acknowledged yesterday, unlikely to see his annual bonus this year.

The Olympic failings can now be added to the company's catalogue of past calamities. They range from the death in October 2010 of the asylum-seeker Jimmy Mubenga while in the company's custody, to two aircraft containing 9/11 terrorists taking off from airports where Securicor, now part of G4S, ran security.

Wayward employees are a perennial risk, the latest glaring example being Travis Baumgartner, a G4S Cash Solutions staffer in Canada who has been charged with murder, attempted murder and armed robbery after shooting dead three colleagues and critically injuring another during a cash delivery to an ATM machine.

Critics say the company cuts costs and corners to win contracts. Its defenders say that, when you employ a staff of 657,000 (greater than the population of Glasgow), some rotten apples and blemishes are inevitable.

The firm can trace its origins back to Denmark in 1901. It incorporates what was Securicor (founded in 1935 by four men on bicycles who took on night guard duties). Since then, it has mushroomed astonishingly. As with Barclays Bank, it is hard not to wonder if the G4S enterprise is not too unwieldy for proper supervision and management, especially given the nature of the formerly public services it often carries out. Today it operates in more than 125 countries, with around 160 subsidiaries.

As it has taken over company after company, it has become so ubiquitous that it is, for larger public contracts, almost the only option. Barclays and the banks are too big to fail; G4S is so big and the work it does so vital, that it doesn't seem to matter if it fails. Someone else – in this case, the British Army – will pick up the slack.

Questions to answer

Nick Buckles; G4S, chief executive

The man with the mullet had only just shaken off one big disaster at the helm of G4S before this latest, incredibly public debacle. Mr Buckles is now under more pressure than at any time during his seven-year leadership of the company and is understood to have privately conceded that it is inevitable shareholders and his board will consider whether he should move on.

Mr Buckles tried to buy the Danish cleaning company ISS in a £5.2bn deal late last year, which, even in the mega-merger world of the City, is a lot of money. He was wanting to splash out in the middle of one of the greatest financial crises the world has ever seen, so it hardly surprising that G4S shareholders responded badly to the idea – especially as they would have had to have stumped up £2bn to help fund the takeover.

Under the sort of investor pressure that has begun to signal a "shareholder spring", Mr Buckles was soon forced to pull out of the deal. Despite this, he managed to survive, even as the company's chairman, Alf Duch-Pederson, quit and key corporate advisers were axed.

Conceding that he would not be pursuing the huge deals that could double the size of the business, Mr Buckles started focusing on small acquisitions that might enhance parts of G4S. The change of tack seemed to have worked: the share price has recovered over the past eight months. However, Mr Buckles – a huge admirer of Margaret Thatcher – has been in the security industry for more than a quarter of a century and will know that few chief executives survive two such major failures in less than a year.

While some might argue that a company head cannot know the detail of every business contract, the Olympics is extremely high-profile and Nick Buckles would have been expected to have ensured that everything ran smoothly.

G4S appears to have won the contract at an extremely low price and the current failure will surely trigger questions over how the company prices its contracts. It is worth noting, though, that the scale of the group means it can make savings that smaller rivals simply cannot.

Nick Buckles started work as a Christmas postman aged 16, then worked for Avon Cosmetics – not as an Avon Lady but as an analyst. These days he commands a pay packet worth around £1.2m. Yesterday, he toured newsrooms to explain what had gone wrong. However, he clearly knows that he will have little control over whether he stays at G4S. That, he has admitted, is "for others to decide".

Ian Horseman Sewell; G4S, managing director major events

A Cambridge University graduate who gained his security expertise at the Foreign Office, where he looked at the Arab world and counterterrorism, Ian Horseman Sewell has had a number of roles in the private sector. These include running his own legal and commercial consultancy before joining G4S six years ago. Since 2009, he has run the major events side of the business. He is the account director for London 2012.

The role looks like a good fit: many of his jobs have been in outsourcing.

Mr Horseman Sewell obviously likes his sport. He professes to being a an active rugby player and a keen sailor. Since April last year, he has been a member of the international advisory board to the World Academy of Sport, an education body.

Among the others who will be asked to provide answers at the Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday will be Mark Hamilton, G4S's managing director of security personnel. Appropriately, Mr Hamilton is a former bouncer (although he started life as a fruit lorry driver) who set up his own security firm, Rock Steady, in Scotland. The company was bought by G4S in 2008.

Sir Ian Johnston; Locog, director of security and resilience

This position should be a glorious cap to a 44-year career in the police that saw Sir Ian rise to chief constable of the British Transport Police .That role meant that he was in charge of handling the response to the 2005 7/7 terrorist attacks that shocked Londoners just a day after the capital had won the right to host the Olympics.

Now, however, Sir Ian may be remembered as the man who signed a contract with G4S that left the capital with a security shortage in the lead-up to the world's most high-profile sporting event.

Ironically, the same man demanded that London 2012 be treated as a huge security risk. He wants security to be set to a "severe" level – the second highest to "critical" – for the duration of the Games, which is unusual for such a long period.

The airport-style security screening that Sir Ian has previously described as "a necessary measure" is one of G4S's areas of expertise and one of the reasons the company secured the contract.

Knighted in 2009, Sir Ian is married with two sons and has chaired a boys' football club in Orpington, Kent, for more than 25 years.