Olympic Security - G4S Call in the Police & HM Armed Forces

Not being a politician, affiliated with G4S or an Olympian (yet…), this case was of interest to me because it demonstrates some fundamental problem with the private security industry and accredited training.

10,000 security staff were expected to be provided by G4S for the Olympics, at a cost to the tax payer of almost £300m; even with very crude maths we can therefore deduce that the cost of providing each of these guards was to be nearly £30,000.

I accept that there are support staff to account for, training, accreditation, criminal record checks, equipment, planning and a cut for share holders, all of which need to be paid from this same pot; but that is still a significant pot.

G4S Olympic Recruitment and Training

Now I speak from a position of someone who has no first-hand experience of the G4S recruitment and training process, so my commentary is not a reflection of their policies, but rather the direction in which within the training sector and the security industry in particular, has headed in recent years. We also now have enough first-hand accounts in the public domain, to know that in this particular case it has been far from a smooth process.

The process of recruiting security guards for the Olympics saw large numbers interviewed from various sources including job centres and students, who in the main had little or no experience in the private security industry. They are then trained and will in 9 days time be thrown into the front-line roles at the biggest sporting event in the world; not to mention the number one target for terrorists groups.

The London Olympics are a security headache, spread out over many different sites, attended by large and diverse crowds. Is this really the ideal locations to blood new recruits, who have received only a few days training and by some accounts, training which was not always that effective?

Why did G4S not reach out to the thousands of experienced, already licensed door supervisors?

Private Security Undervalued in the UK

There is a fundamental problem with the way we view private security employees in the UK. They are seen in the whole as low-paid uneducated staff, required, but not often desired or respected. Poor training has led to poor standards and those poor standards are something driven and accepted by excessive competition and profit margins.

Where was the first place that the recruiters looked for this private army; the job centre and universities. I’m not suggesting people from these sectors should not be given the chance, they absolutely should, however one has to suspect that the reason so many were recruited through these streams, was as much to do with cost as anything else. 

If we respected the role of door supervisors and security guards more, for the vital role they play in protecting the public and filling the void the police do not have the resources to fill, we would expect a much higher calibre of individual to fill these vital front-line roles. We would train them to a much higher, more regulated standards (including regular CPD) and remunerate them accordingly.

Higher wages would in effect attract a higher calibre of recruit, which in turn would start the process of making work in the private security sector a profession / career, rather than casual or part-time work. This in turn would lower the numbers required to fill roles taken up by existing people who are often unmotivated or treated as a body count to satisfy insurers.

The calculation is simple, pay two people of a low standard to fulfil the role of one competent person and you can pay that competent person 50% more, making it more worthwhile for them and still saving 25% on your overall security costs…

The Olympic Games Will Be Safe

Now we must also be careful not to scaremonger, the security guards were never going to be the front line against terrorism.

We have the most amazing police force and anti-terrorism units anywhere in the world, with our unique model of unarmed and armed police, we are the envy of the world; even if not always appreciated as they should be in the UK itself.

We also have armed forces who carry out their duty in the most professional and competent way, be they called to fight in foreign countries or to serve on the home-front in any role; these are highly trained individuals. They are within a very short space of time able to turn their hand to any task assigned to them and do it at a level no civilian body could ever hope emulate.

Maybe the failure of G4S will actually lead to a more secure Olympics, as the professionals step in to fill the void they leave through their failure to meet their contractual obligations.

There is however no getting away from the fact that 10,000 security guards adds an additional level of safety that an event such as the Olympics relies on to run smoothly. As the first point of contact for many people visiting the Olympic games and the last person the encounter when they leave a venue, security staff are also, in many ways, one of the key faces of the Olympics and therefore the reputation of London itself.

So with the important role they play one would assume that the recruitment policy would be to recruit as many experienced security professionals as possible. There are after all many thousands of trained experienced SIA registered professional private security personnel out there, many of whom would welcome several consecutive weeks of work. The SIA has a register of them… it’s not rocket science…

So Why Did More SIA Licensed Individuals Not Apply?

Many may already have had regular work commitments which may have prevented them from the potential short term gain of Olympic related work, but in most cases the real reason they did not apply was, pay and conditions.

The rates of pay offered by G4S are below what many experienced security personnel would expect even for the basic roles. Those who may have had ambitions of obtaining more senior roles, would certainly command higher rates of pay, however one of the reasons not more of these people were attracted to apply was that there was no obvious way to apply for roles other than as front-line staff.

Supposedly the recruitment process would assess your experience and place you accordingly, but there was no mention of what other positions may have been available and what the rates of pay for these roles were. In what other lines of work would you be expected to go for an interview without knowing what the available positions are; it’s counter intuitive.

Let’s face it, recruiting inexperienced people as well as people like students, is ‘easy’ and cheap, they will work for relatively low wages and tolerate difficult working conditions such as having to sleep in tent cities. The problem is they also have no reputation to maintain, no great incentive and no professional status which drives them to work to a high standard or even to turn-up for work in the first place.

Adult Training Standards Exposed

From the many accounts now in the public domain, it seems that consistency of training has been compromised by the numbers and the pressure to get people accredited; no matter how. There have been stories of candidates being told they have failed courses, only to be offered jobs a few weeks later.

One of the issues we highlighted in a previous blog entry (Will poor security training undermine the 2012 London Olympics) is that these new recruits will be accredited by the SIA before the Olympics and maintain that accreditation following the Olympics, flooding the market with still relatively inexperience, but licensed individuals.

This was one of the examples widely publicised to demonstrate the promised legacy of the games; legacy doesn’t always have to be used as a positive term…

The other almost unbelievable failure is that it seems there was no anticipation of the drop-off rate following training and accreditation. That there is great surprise that people simply did not turn up to work, once trained seems at best naive. The training they received was effectively government funded training.

The government and various funding bodies have been providing some funding for security training since the inception of the 2011 Private Security Act. This funding has been snapped up by some training companies, who deliver very poor value for money for tax payers.

I have witnessed government funded training for the SIA Door Supervisor qualifications where the training company put 60 – 100 people in a lecture theatre and propose that this is an effective training environment.

Ask any self-respecting professional trainer and they will tell you that any more than 15 – 20 candidates cannot be effectively trained in the hands-on skills and techniques required by a professional door supervisor.

What I witnessed on day one of the funded course is that a large percentage of candidates (many of whom are sent by job centres) drop out after lunch on day one. Once they have registered as attending, they have met the requirements of the agency which sent them and the training company claim the funding for the whole course. By the last day of the training, especially once they understand there is a £220 licence fee they have to find after the training, on the course I witnessed, no more than 15-20 people remained from and initial 60-80.

G4S as part of their contract is also covering the licence fee for their recruits (effectively with the government funding received), so there was an additional incentive for recruits to finish their training with G4S, but not necessarily to work for them. Once a Security Guarding or Door Supervisor Licence has been issued, it is the property of the holder, not their employer. It’s not difficult to envisage a scenario where many people would take their licence and go off and find employers who pay more and provide better working conditions…

‘Tick-the-Box’ Training

The quality of the training is difficult to comment on, certainly the stories coming out of recruits who have been through it are not all overwhelmingly positive, although I have equally heard from people in more senior roles who said their training was interesting.

Compliance training is blighted by the number of providers delivering ‘tick-the-box training’; training because it has to be done rather than it being particularly effective.

This is certainly a significant problem with much of the training offered in the private security sector; players come into the market and drive down prices by cutting corners, packing out training rooms with 50 to 100 candidates and issuing accredited training certificates based on candidates being taught the answers to exam questions, rather than learning what are difficult skills to master.

I speak to many potential new clients who tell me they have been guaranteed by other training providers that their candidates will pass associated exams. I am often asked if I will help candidates when they do their exams and I have seen first-hand trainers who all but give the answers to exam questions; ‘tick-the-box’ training verging on fraud and corruption.

My response to these enquiries is always the same; we can’t guarantee exam results, that is down to the ability of the individual taking the exam. However the high standard of our training means candidates learn their subject, which in turn gives them every chance of success and leads to our high pass rates.

These stories coming out of the G4S Olympic situation are not unique, we have been hearing them for many years, but they highlight that the systems in place to monitor competence and quality assurance of process are not rigorous enough.

I was reading one city analyst’s view of the G4S share price, he said they had ‘slashed its target price as the issues will prompt broader changes (such as strengthening of internal controls) leading to an ongoing increase in costs’, this seemed to me to summarise the problem. Share price over quality robust procedures, what an incitement.

With only 9 days left before the Olympics start, there seems no way back for G4S from this disaster, they claim it will cost them upwards of £35 - £50m in profit once the financial penalties for not completing the contract are taken into account; I’m sure they will feel slightly better about this, once they offset the loss against the tax paid on profit from other parts of their business…

Into the void they leave behind, step the ever reliable and professional armed forces and police. So there is an argument we will at least get highly trained individuals taking on the roles, which should have been taken on by highly skilled individuals in the first place.

When it was the banks who got it very wrong, the government were forced to step in. Now G4S has failed to honour their contract, the government has been forced to step in; too big to fail or too big to care if they succeed?


Author - Peter Mayhew is the Managing Director of Beyond the Blue Training & Consultancy. He delivers training courses and provides expert opinion to the private security industry for individuals, organisations and public bodies. Peter is a frequent contributor to industry publications.

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