Society, Politics & Law

Looking through the glass floor

Updated Wednesday 14th March 2012

John Grayson works with the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action group (SYMAAG). As private security firms hit the news, he writes about how they contribute to the 'symbolic glass floor' 

Private security firms are in the news - a national contract worth £3.5 billion is being rolled out to privatise police functions. Eight public prisons are being market tested with future private contracts worth £2.5 billion. The largest security company in the world, G4S, figures in all these developments. G4S and two other security companies are also set to take over asylum-seeker housing, privatising the last 'humanitarian' public housing for those fleeing persecution. But this is only the latest evidence of asylum seekers being used as 'guinea pigs' to test unsavoury policies in such areas as welfare reform, legal aid and now housing.

The growing and now endemic 'common sense racism' of political and media discourses with regard to asylum seekers and foreigners has meant that a fundamental erosion in the legal rights and status of social citizenship in the UK has over fifteen or so years been piloted by governments in 'the Orwellian world of immigration controls'. As Judith Shklar describes it, a world where there is 'a symbolic glass floor - citizens exist above the floor and can look down on those beneath who are excluded from citizenship and are thus the most deprived in society'.

Over the past few years, the derisory value of state support for asylum-seeker families and single people has been reduced even more in value and scope. It was very difficult in 2009 and 2010 to find any political support for the campaigns of asylum rights groups to oppose cuts and to defend the income of asylum seekers pilloried in the press and attacked by politicians in election campaigns. Just as later, in 2011 and 2012, the press and the populist narratives of 'scroungers' have dominated the rhetoric and 'bloody battles' over welfare cuts separating claimants out from 'hard working families'.

This week the House of Lords attempts to prevent drastic cuts in legal aid for a whole range of civil cases affecting housing, family cases, and personal compensation. Lobby groups are realising that legal aid and access to justice is the last remaining pillar of welfare rights and social citizenship developed in the 1940s along with education, health, housing, employment, and universal benefits. But massive cuts in legal aid for asylum and immigration cases were already made in 2010 and 2011, resulting in the collapse of the two major voluntary sector providers, the Immigration Advisory Service and Refugee Migrant Justice. But the ongoing demonising of foreigners and asylum seekers ensured then that few voices were raised against cuts which of course affected immigration lawyers - the butt of attacks by successive home and justice secretaries from Jack Straw and David Blunkett to Theresa May and Ken Clarke.

Outsourcing punishment, detention and state violence

British governments since the 1990s have sought to outsource key functions of the modern state - such as the confining and rehabilitating of criminals - which has been rapidly achieved through the rise and rise of global private security companies such as G4S and SERCO.

Almost unnoticed, the UK has now the largest private prison sector in Europe - larger than that of the USA. In December 2011 in England and Wales 11,446 prisoners (13.1 per cent) were in private prisons. By the end of March there will be fourteen private prisons. The market testing of a further eight public prisons, at present underway, could mean another 5,700 prisoners in private prisons in the next year or so. The value of these eight contracts over fifteen years is estimated at £2.5 billion.

The private security companies have profited massively from this management of the prisoner market which just three companies share. G4S will have seven contracts by April 2012, SERCO five, and Sodexo three including the only private women's prison at Bronzefield. On 1 October 2011, HMP Birmingham became the first publicly-run prison to be contracted out to the private sector and G4S with a contract worth £468.3 million.

The G4S and SERCO prison empires have also hoovered up voluntary organisations. G4S has been jointly providing family services for visitors at its Wolds prison since 2004 with the PreSchool Learning Alliance 'the largest third sector provider of quality childcare'. SERCO won contracts for prisons with its voluntary sector partners Turning Point and Catch 22 providing 'rehabilitation and resettlement solutions' (for instance for Belmarsh West in 2010) and is currently running a pilot 'payments by results scheme' with Catch 22 and Turning Point on rehabilitation at its privatised HMP Doncaster where it already runs a successful 'Families First' programme.

Alongside the prison estate market, the criminalising and 'securitising' of immigration and asylum has meant the development of what G4S has described as 'asylum markets'. Private security firms have come to dominate detention, transport and escort services for asylum seekers, displacing politically accountable public provision. G4S Justice Services opened the first designed, constructed, managed and financed private prison in the UK, HMP Altcourse, Fazakerley, Liverpool in 1997. By 2011 it had seven prison contracts and managed four of the detention centres for asylum seekers including the family-friendly Cedars centre (already attracting criticism for detention of families who are allowed fewer rights than in the prison and detention system). Its management of detention centres was also somewhat problematic. In 2010 there were a record 773 complaints lodged against G4S by detainees including forty-eight claims of assault.

G4S, despite this record and the fact that three of its escort staff are still on bail facing criminal charges related to the death of Jimmy Mubenga an Angolan man, (read an IRR News story: 'Jimmy Mubenga remembered' ↑ ), is finalising its contract to take over asylum-seeker housing in the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber. (Other security firms, SERCO and Reliance, share contracts in other regions.) The company is extending its interests in the asylum market but these contracts signal a further shift in public policy, this time in housing.

Asylum housing as 'house arrest'

Asylum seekers and asylum rights campaigners perceive this extension of the role of for-profit security companies in the prison and immigration estate as creating a form of 'house arrest' for asylum seekers awaiting decisions on their claims. Could this be an initial step towards the policy, called for recently by former home office junior minister Anne Widdecombe, of 'detention centres on arrival' for all asylum seekers? There was after all an earlier attempt in December 2005 to introduce such a regime with a Home Office contract for the security firm Reliance to pilot voice recognition and tagging of 200 asylum seekers in Glasgow and two other areas.

For G4S the asylum housing contract may signal their hope to enter the international privatised social housing and for-profit private rented sector markets. G4S has set up a separate housing division as part of its Yorkshire contract headed by a former president of the Chartered Institute of Housing. Its management methods will be tested on upwards of 500 asylum-seeker families and individuals who will be dispersed from local authority housing in South Yorkshire over the next six months. None of these residents will of course have any rights as tenants nor even as customers - these are all stripped away by the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act. Asylum seekers are treated as if they have no real legal presence.

Not just a matter of cost

The language of the market and the current climate of 'austerity' often justifies these private contracts in terms of cost. Research actually suggests that private prisons, detention centres and other asylum market services are not always cheaper options. Private prisons certainly tend to be more overcrowded than publicly run institutions. The privately run detention institutions in 'the Orwellian world of immigration controls' are certainly not cheap, but costings are rarely reported. The Home Affairs Select Committee reported some figures in November 2009. The average cost of detention was £130 per night per person in an immigration removal centre which amounts to around £45,000 per place per year. This is thus much higher in the mainly privatised detention centre world than the average in the mainly publicly controlled prison world (most prisoners are in category C or local prisons where the costs per male prisoner are £32,109 and £35,157 per annum respectively).

Whatever the costs, the detention centres certainly have a disgraceful record As a recent research study has documented over the past few years. 'In the UK's detention centres there have been 16 suicides, alarming rates of self-harm, hunger strikes and appalling levels of mental and physical illness. Thousands of innocent men women and children have been put through the detention wringer'.

In a rather surreal moment in a recent meeting between UK Border Agency (UKBA) 'enforcement' staff and asylum rights organisations in Sheffield, the UKBA disclosed that it was striving to get a 'customer service and satisfaction award' for its direct and outsourced escort and detention services. An outsourced escort service then operated by G4S was involved in the death of Jimmy Mubenga and three of his escorts are under investigation for possible prosecution.

The power of the European private security industry


Recent disclosures about the massive £3.5 billion national contract for privatising police services (at present taken up by West Midlands and Surrey police forces) follow the news that G4S has already won a £200 million contract to transfer half the staff of Lincolnshire police authority and build and run a new police station there.

The private security market in general across the EU is displacing routine state policing duties? In all the countries of the EU there is an average of 31.11 private security personnel per 10,000 people as compared to 36.28 police personnel per 10,000. As one commentator has said this is actually changing the assumed 'norm' that it is the state and not private companies which have a monopoly on state violence.

The UK is amongst the most intensively covered by private security with one private guard to every 170 people compared with one police employee to every 382 citizens -figures comparable to Hungary and Serbia. Germany on the other hand has much lighter private security with one private guard for every 484 citizens and one police employee for every 326 citizens. The private security business in the UK is worth £3.97 billion annually. Across Europe this is a very powerful lobby for privatising and marketising state functions. Just three companies have 46 per cent of the market in the UK. Just three companies have 56 per cent of the market across the EU. Published data from the EU does not directly name them but it would be strange indeed if G4S and SERCO were not amongst them.

The private asylum market is not neutral, it comes with values

Conor Gearty, in a lecture to Asylum Aid in November 2010, suggested that: 'We are I think close to or at a paradigm shift in our approach to asylum seekers and immigrants in Europe, that moment when we stop thinking in ways made inevitable by our past ethical truths, and start talking and thinking in a far nastier vein. The latter is becoming normal the former increasingly the exception. The rule is drifting from civility to incivility, from respect for humanity to celebration of inhumanity, from universalist idealism to parochial hostility. And all of this is seemingly supported by a new fast emerging "social consensus".'

In Sheffield and South Yorkshire some local authorities, many trade unionists, church and faith groups, and a network of asylum rights and refugee groups hold to the 'social democratic' world of those past ethical truths. In early April in Geneva the UK will be held to account in the UN's Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights. The South Yorkshire asylum rights 'consensus' submitted their own review of the sustained attacks on the human rights of asylum seekers in Sheffield for submission to the UNHRC.

This 'far nastier' social consensus on asylum is driven in the UK by a common sense and state racism in terms of public policy and is delivered in the market place by the practice of private security firms. These 'far nastier' assumptions about state policies are unfortunately often shared across the boundaries between private and public provision. On the Today programme on Saturday 3 March John Humphrys was challenging Chief Superintendent Phil Kay of the West Midland police about its proposed involvement in the privatisation of the police arguing that the values of a private company subject to shareholders was totally different to 'sworn officers' in police service. Superintendent Kay disagreed, he thought that 'some of their values will be different' but developing the potential 'partnership' he found they shared similar values to our own'. 'You'd be surprised in some respects, there will be overlap.' Unfortunately there may well be 'overlap' in values - but perhaps of the 'far nastier' variety.

Those living outside South Yorkshire might find it difficult to believe that Sheffield still declares itself a City of Sanctuary (in fact it started the national movement), and Barnsley proclaims it still provides 'humanitarian' housing for asylum seekers. A petition against G4S taking over asylum housing presented to the full Sheffield city council meeting on 1 February was applauded by the whole council.

Councillors and campaigners understand that the G4S contract not only privatises this humanitarian function but destroys it and replaces it with the clear message adopted by both Labour and the Coalition that asylum seekers are not welcome here. Indeed they should be treated like criminals with prison guards as their landlords, as part of a deliberate policy of deterrence. As one Zimbabwean asylum seeker in Sheffield declared, 'I do not want a prison guard as my landlord'.

Future tenants and customers confronting G4S in its role as housing provider will no doubt be able to recognise that it piloted its particular brand of housing management on vulnerable asylum seekers 'below that symbolic glass floor'.

This article is taken from For all sources, visit 


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Immigration detention: what's the problem with privatisation? Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Artwork by Catherine Pain © The Open University article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Immigration detention: what's the problem with privatisation?

Who's profitting from the misery of the detainees? This article questions the issue of privatisation in Immigration Removal Centres.

Thinking Allowed - Security firms Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Thinking Allowed - Security firms

This week's subject is private and military security, timely considering some UK police force's moves to use more security firms. Find out more... 

The insecurity of security introduction Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University video icon

Health, Sports & Psychology 

The insecurity of security introduction

Security measures, such as gated communities and CCTV, can remove people's rights and have a long-term physical impact on everyday life. Do these increasing attempts at security help or is it a vicious cirlce which increases our feelings of insecurity?

5 mins
Who will lead Britain out of the European Union Creative commons image Icon William Murphy under a CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Who will lead Britain out of the European Union

Perhaps it's not surprising that campaigners against the European Union don't want to work together. Simon Usherwood explores the sides battling to lead.

article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Power sharing and responsibility

Article five of ten: How can two parliaments share power and responsibility? 

How can authorities plan for an unexpected terrorist tactic? Creative commons image Icon DAVID HOLT under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

How can authorities plan for an unexpected terrorist tactic?

Parliament’s security is under review following the attack in Westminster. But, when pedestrians could be hit next to Big Ben, there may be more to review than the protection of the building alone. Patrick Dunleavy asks whether our approaches to security are as effective as they could be, considering the constantly shifting terrorist methods. He explains why in combating future plots, the authorities must take into account their own blind spots.

The 2007 SNP minority government and cohabitation Creative commons image Icon First Minister Of Scotland under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

The 2007 SNP minority government and cohabitation

Article four of ten: Just what did this entail? 

article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

The 2007 Scottish elections

Article three of ten: What was the outcome of the elections?

A letter that starts the renegotiation process – Cameron writing to Tusk Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: pablographix via iStock article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

A letter that starts the renegotiation process – Cameron writing to Tusk

What does David Cameron's 'list of demands' sent to the European Union actually mean?