As chief executive of a security firm, Nick Buckles ought to be used to hostile encounters. But the embattled head of G4S looked startled, and at times confused, as he faced questions before Parliament in London on Tuesday morning, in the aftermath of revelations that his company has failed to train sufficient security personnel for the London Olympics.
Members of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee didn’t attempt to bite their tongues. With just 10 days to go before the Olympics, they seemed to channel the embarrassment of millions of Britons and their leaders, who have had to call in 3,500 troops to fill the security gap. Here’s one exchange.
“It’s a humiliating shambles, Mr. Buckles,” David Winnick, a Labour MP, said.
“It’s not where we want to be,” Buckles replied. “That’s for certain.”
“It’s a humiliating shambles for the country, yes or no?” Winnick asked again, this time a bit louder.
“I cannot disagree with you.”
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Of course, onlookers would have expected a degree of friction at that point in the hearing. Keith Vaz, the head of the committee, had already set an adversarial tone with his rather pointed opening question: “Why are you still in your post?”
G4S has lost around $1 billion in market value since it admitted that it could not fulfill its contractual obligation to supply 10,400 security guards with just two weeks to go before the opening ceremony. The company’s stock tumbled 6% on July 17 alone, reaching its lowest price since December last year.
Buckles did his best to shift the blame. Despite having 18 months to prepare for the Games, Buckles said he was not made aware of personnel problems until July 3. He was on vacation in the U.S. Rather than admitting he should have monitored the contract more closely, he suggested the “management chain” had failed him. “There are three levels between me and the contract, and they should be bringing issues to me,” he said. He agreed that the company’s reputation “is in tatters,” but said that he is the best person to help the company emerge with its reputation intact. And what’s more: the firm still intends to collect its £57 million ($89 million) management fee for the Olympics. “We have had a fantastic track record of service delivery over many years in many countries,” he said. “But clearly this is not a good position to be in,” he told an astonished Vaz.
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The Olympics fiasco is only the latest in a series of high-profile slipups committed by the firm. Last October, G4S guards misplaced the keys at Birmingham Prison in England; prisoners were locked in their cells for nearly 24 hours. In August the firm had to fire two employees who fitted an electronic monitoring device to a man’s prosthetic leg, which he proceeded to remove in order to break a court-imposed curfew. And in October 2010, an Angolan deportee died while in G4S custody on board a British Airways flight. (After an investigation authorities did not press charges.)
But Buckles isn’t the only one left looking like his house isn’t in order. Questions had already arisen as to why the British government decided to outsource security in the first place. For days Labour politicians have maintained that Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, should have known earlier than July 11 about staff shortages. According to Buckles, officials within the Home Office did know a situation was brewing, even if G4S didn’t officially state that it couldn’t meet its obligations until that July 11 date. Buckles said he began holding daily meetings with the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, also known as LOCOG, and the Home Office on July 3. Buckles refused to comment on whether Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, should have referred the problem to ministers sooner.
Regardless, Tuesday’s trial by fire was likely just a prelude of what Buckles and the top brass at G4S can expect in the days ahead. In the hours after the hearing, Vaz, of the Home Affairs Select Committee, called upon the firm to give up its £57 million management fee. As for Buckles, he’s also confirmed that the firm is no longer in the running for the security contracts for the next soccer World Cup and Olympic Games, which both will take place in Brazil.