Private Security: A Bad Deal for British Tax Payers

A no holds barred BBC Scotland Investigates documentary revealing how former British servicemen are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan while on UK government contracts paid for by British tax payers is currently playing on BBC iPlayer

I urge anyone who reads this post to please help get the word out about this very important, long overdue documentary. When a security contractor enters the public consciousness, it’s usually due to a tragic scandal that reinforces the image of a gun totting mercenary with no love for his nation and no moral foundation.

The reality is very different.

It may not sell newspapers, but the truth is the overwhelming majority of British private security contractors working in hostile environments are competent professionals who strive to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.  They are decent men and women, many of them ex-military, trying to earn an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.  Their attitudes and motives are no different from professional soldiers. In fact many of them are doing military jobs outsourced by Britain and its allies.  When it comes to recognition and support however, private contractors couldn’t be further from their armed forces counterparts. 

When private security contractors die doing military tasks overseas, they don’t come home in flag draped coffins. Crowds do not line the streets to pay tribute to their sacrifice.   They are fallen heroes the government doesn’t want you to know about.   Why? Because as long as the deaths are swept under the rug, politicians can hide the true cost of their disastrous foreign policies and private security companies—PSCs—can continue to profit from contracts paid for by the British tax payer.

Thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of pounds of tax payer funds have been rerouted from Britain’s military straight into the pockets of PSC shareholders. Defenders of outsourcing military tasks argue its good value for money because the private security sector is more efficient than the armed forces. But when you examine what these so-called efficiencies entail, it’s readily apparent that the British tax payer is getting a raw deal.

Private security companies aren’t in business to defend our country and protect its values. They exist for one reason only—to make money. So how is it they can do military jobs for less and yet still turn a profit?  The answer is simple.

They cut corners.

Hiring a temporary contractor is far less expensive than maintaining a career soldier. Most private firms don’t train their staff or give them pension plans. They are not obligated to provide them with the required tools of their trade such as serviceable weapons, body armour and properly armoured vehicles.  And they certainly don’t have to maintain back up staff to get their contractors out of trouble when they come unstuck in a war zone.  It’s soldiering on the cheap, and our nation will end up paying for it dearly if it continues to thrive unchecked.

Thanks to the gutting of our military and the recession, there’s no shortage of ex-service personnel vying to fill private security jobs at present.  But this won’t be the case for long.  The average wage of a contractor working in hostile environments has dropped precipitously since the heady days of the early noughties when the US and British governments were scrambling to fill the troop gap in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There’s virtually no job security for private security personnel in hostile environments because most of their contracts are fixed term and can be torn up at a moment’s notice.  The insurance compensation for loss of limb and life are a joke and retirement plans are still few and far between.  In short, it’s an unappealing career path for the young, bright, capable men and women the military traditionally attracts.

I predict that as the economy improves and ex-service personnel retrain for better paying, more stable jobs, the pool of high calibre recruits for private security firms will dry up, leaving only desperate and inexperienced individuals to assume military tasks which often require a high degree of specialist training.  The industry will argue that there are approved training courses to ensure contractors working in hostile environments have the necessary skills.  In my view, these training courses are a fig leaf. Most have close to a one hundred percent pass rate which means that anyone willing to write a cheque will get their tick in the box.

In my book The Circuit, I argued passionately for three key reforms to protect the integrity of our armed forces and dramatically increase the professionalism of private security firms.

  1. End the practice of outsourcing military tasks and restrict British private security firms to servicing commercial contracts only.
  2. Require private security firms to perform due diligence on all employees to ensure they have the skills and mind set to do their tasks effectively.
  3. Establish an independent, external regulatory body to draft, implement and enforce a code of conduct for the private security industry.

So far, my pleas have fallen on deaf ears.  Military tasks are still being outsourced to the private sector, there’s little due diligence and the private security industry continues to police itself—not surprising given how many retired generals and MPs sit on the boards of PSCs.

Too many people empowered with looking after our national security have been co-opted by the industry for any meaningful change to take place.  The public must demand reform before our national security is fatally compromised.  This is hardly alarmist.  Just look at security firm G4S’s failure to train and deliver the contracted number of guards for the Olympics this summer. Now imagine that same debacle happening in a war zone. Personally, I would like to see the CEO of G4S barred from Britain’s private security industry for life. But thanks to the lobbying efforts of PSCs, there’s no external regulator to hold him to account.

There is a fourth reform I would like to see as well.   Presently, there is no law requiring PSCs to report overseas deaths of employees or divulge how many contractors are wounded or suffer mental trauma as a result of their work in hostile environments.  I’m sure the figures would be eye-popping, more so than any headlines about rogue mercenaries.  Anyone who dies serving this country deserves to have their sacrifice recognized and honoured.  Let’s bring these heroes out of the shadows along with the companies they work for.  The tax payers and the nation will be better off for it.

5 thoughts on “Private Security: A Bad Deal for British Tax Payers

  1. Thanks Bob. It’s good to see someone talking sense. I’ve always taken the view that the private sector enabled this and previous govts to hide the true cost of the war and sanitise things as frequent body bags weren’t appearing on the news.
    Certainly this govt is so enamoured with everything private that war cannot be immune from it. But the general public are fed such rubbish. Anything to do with questioning anything about these conflicts is attacked as disloyal, unpatriotic.
    I’ve had a very little experience of people in PMC roles. I knew there job was unreported as would be their injuries or deaths. It opened my eyes. It made me feel sick and betrayed by the government.
    I’ll watch this programme with interest. Thanks as always for your insight

  2. I’ve got it programmed ready to watch later tonight. So many books I’ve read involving PSC’s show the corner cutting, profit before life attitude. You all too often hear about policemen and nightclub doormen ‘trained’ then put into situations that they are ill prepared for, endangering those they are assigned with and impeding the aim of that contract. I have no idea of the numbers of dead and wounded but I bet it is astronomical and something the government should hang their heads in shame for. Hopefully this program will start some debates and get the headlines it deserves.

    1. Julian

      I must admit that I have to disagree with your comments to a certain degree.

      ‘The Circuit’ has moved on somewhat from its early days and contracts with Embassies or oil giants have many safe guards now in place to ensure that the PSC contracted to provide security provide the best possible service.

      I am a manger of a company who provides security to a high profile diplomatic mission and I can confirm that we provide the best people possible to protect those diplomats under our care.

      This means we have a minimum skill set requirement to ensure we recruit the best people out there and we also ensure that our staff are vetted to the highest standards with SIA licensing as a must have before deployment.

      We also ensure that we also recruit those who undertake recognised courses and if possible, courses that are at the top end of the training market.

      This is not the end of the quality control process as we also place new deployments through an in country induction programme which tests new staff to the highest standard. This continues throughout their deployment with ongoing training packages to prove to the client that we meet contractual requirements and ensures that we never have skill fade.

      Lastly my contract ensures that we have the best kit, equipment and ops support possible to my guys and girls whilst they conduct their missions.

      This goes as far to ensure where possible we meet UK standards of HSE and we also employ a member of staff to deal with the issue of HSE plus compliance.

      As much as I admire Bob for his experience in the PSC world it has moved on many light years from the 2003 Iraq days of which I was very much a part of.

      it is very easy to use a sweeping brush stroke to tarnish all PSC’s but most of the decent companies have moved on from the ‘good old days’

      1. Hi Robbie.
        Glad to hear that things have improved so much. One question I still don’t have an answer for ( as being a printer keeps me out of the loop ) is whether or not an independent regulator is in place? My synical head just has to question these things!! Thanks anyway for the detailed argument. Better than the retarded abuse you get on other sites as soon as you question something.
        Take care.
        Julian.

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