Capita has been widely criticised due their role in our draconian welfare system. Gerard Stewart takes a look at the background of the company, and their increasing encroachment into public services.
Capita is the largest provider of business process outsourcing (BPO) across local and national government services in the UK, employing around 1,500 people in the North of Ireland, who work in anything ranging from immigration detention to the implementation of welfare reform. The company has come under increasing pressure off the back of a continuous stream of negative media attention, damning judicial decisions, and official investigations into consistent complaints of maladministration and human rights violations.
Capita is perhaps best known for its role in our increasingly draconian welfare system. But less known, is the group’s history of involvement in immigration. Along the Antrim Coast, just a stone’s throw from Larne harbour, lies Larne House Detention Centre. Between 2011 and April 2018, Tascor Services Ltd—a subsidiary of Capita’s business empire—was awarded millions in public funds to manage the site on behalf of the Home Office’s UK Border Agency. Under its old name, “Reliance Secure Task Management” (RTSM), the company was a division of the Reliance Security Group owned by Conservative Party donor Brian Kingham.
At any one time, the short-term holding facility (STHF) holds up to 21 men and women detainees suspected of “visa violations, illegal entry, or unauthorised arrival” for a maximum of seven days within the refurbished ‘custody suite’ of Larne PSNI station, in cell conditions described by officials as “claustrophobic and [without] little natural light”, before their forcible relocation into Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) in Scotland or England, most infamously to the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, England.
Larne House Detention Centre is one of two sites that Tascor/Capita managed during their contracted years, the second being Pennine House in Manchester, where the death-in-custody of Tahir Mehmood, a 43-year-old chef from Pakistan who had overstayed his visa, drew sharp criticism from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) who found that the medical care provided by Tascor/Capita’s “fell below the standard [Tahir Mehmood] could have been expected to have received from NHS care in the community.”
Uniquely, Tascor/Capita additionally operated the ‘escorting services’ contract, manhandling migrants onto mass deportation flights—a contract G4S lost following the killing of Jimmy Mubenga in 2010, arising from the restraint measures employed by three security guards. The awarding of this deportation contract was in spite of findings by the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) that “the Home Office had yet to see the significant performance improvements it was looking for [in Tascor/Capita].” At Larne House Detention Centre, unannounced inspection reports undertaken by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons similarly found that management of the centre had created an “oppressive atmosphere [and implemented] disproportionate security measures.”
While there are no discoverable records of how much public monies Tascor/Capita were paid for their site management and escort services, over the seven years they administered immigration detention services here, it is fair to assume that it was a significant amount. Indeed, the contract was awarded to Mitie (Tascor/Capita’s replacement at Larne House Detention Centre) for an estimated £525 million over the next ten years.
It is alarming that for all the talk of financial accountability in the administration of public monies, this did not spell the end of Capita’s role in the North. Instead of heeding history’s warnings that those who “trade on fear of migrants achieve their goal to dehumanise everyone,” Capita has gone on to “energetically set about depriving everyone else of their rights, migrants and citizens alike.”
In November 2012, Capita was awarded a five-year contract worth £59 million to provide Personal Independent Payment (PIP) assessment services in the North of Ireland. This was part of the UK-wide procurement process in administrating welfare reform, with an additional £2.1 million of money paid for costs incurred on staffing and accommodation in the period between 2013 and 2016 during which it was not operational due to the lack of political consensus at Stormont. Having been up and running since the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015 ( agreed by the DUP, Sinn Féin, and the Alliance Party), the grand total of public money paid to Capita as of January 2019 stands at £80 million.
The contention by Capita and the Department for Communities (DfC) that the development of Personal Independent Payments (PIP) was conducted in collaboration with an advisory group of independent specialists in health and social care and with the engagement of those with disabilities and disability organisations is as contestable as the Conservative & Unionist Party’s claim that the Welfare Reform Act (2012) was an administrative address aimed at alleviating “hopelessness and intergenerational poverty.” In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
In the last four years, Capita have acted as the vanguard in a “neoliberal war against disabled people and against working class communities”, overseeing what the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) declared as “grave and systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people and what the High Court of Justice (UK) ruled as “objectively unjustifiable blatant discrimination” against more than 160,000 people with mental ill health, subsequently instigating a mass review of over 1.6 million disability benefit claims.
Across the North, Capita’s ‘disability assessors’ have administered over 140,000 face-to-face interrogations at each of their nine PIP ‘consultation centres’, with around 90,000 PIP claimants successfully winning back their welfare entitlements following mandatory considerations and appeals on the grounds that their medical information was withheld, ignored, or whittled down. It is on the back of campaign work by disability and mental health activists highlighting the conscious cruelty waged on people with disabilities and mental ill health that Personal Independence Payments administered in Northern Ireland are subject to an investigation by the Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO).
Privatisation of Public Services
While around 53% of Capita’s outsourcing operations come from selling services to other private companies, it is increasingly expanding to manage public services by way of government contracts. They are, as noted by Corporate Watch, one of the main winners from the ‘public private partnership/initiatives’ (PPP/PFI) approach that took off under the 1997 Labour government, later “embraced by every main party after the Belfast Agreement.” Under this outsourcing model, public services normally delivered internally by local government workers are hired out to private third party providers, often for the operation of a particular project’s duration. It is then, by definition, the privatisation and de-unionisation of public services, with disparities in rights among in-house and out-house workers apparent in their pay, terms and conditions. According to Corporate Watch:
Capita’s basic government-linked business model is to take over public sector staff then make big cuts. Government bodies are thus spared the political fallout of making the cuts themselves, leaving Capita to act as a convenient scapegoat when the “efficiency savings” cause declines in services. So despite its history of failures and fines, Capita carries on winning new contracts.”
The announcement at the end of July 2019 that Capita was again awarded £33 million to extend its PIP assessment contract for a further two years with the Department of Communities in the North of Ireland underscores this point.
Even before the horrific stories of sanctions against disabled people, the harsh benefit caps that see rightful claimants £3,500 worse off per year, and the thousands of cases of death-by-work and suicide began to emerge, public opinion polls undertaken by disability charities, such as Mencap, at the time of PIP’s roll-out not only found that the public—some 70%—overwhelmingly opposed PIP disability benefit cuts, but also that the vast majority of people consistently support increased socioeconomic state support for people with disabilities and mental ill health.
Likewise, a continual stream of “surveys have always highlighted that state ownership of companies and industries tends to be popular with the public”, demonstrating the growing disenchantment among workers at the encroachment of privatisation of public services.
This, then, underscores the political demand made by People Before Profit that any talk of reviving the NI Assembly must include provisions that sees local government departments sever their contracts with Capita. The siphoning off of exorbitant amounts of public money must come to an end, and in doing so services—such as welfare administration—must be put back into the hands of public sector workers.
Rather than continue to award Capita for waging conscious cruelty on people with disabilities and mental ill health, we should have in place a social model that addresses the devastating structural barriers experienced by people with disabilities and mental ill health so as to ensure they live a dignified and valued life, in line with the international human rights framework set forth by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and quality assured by a coalition of expert disability organisations advocating locally.
The first step on this path should be to set about in concrete terms the uprooting of Capita from the North of Ireland.