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Home > Reviews > Shadow State

Shadow State

Author Alan White

ISBN No 9781780745749

Review date 19/06/2019

No of pages 320

Publisher Oneworld

Publisher URL

Year of publication 02/06/2017


Our Review


£ 14.99

A book about the 'Shadow State' of outsourced private companies doing work for the public sector, including security, has plenty enough targets that it duly hits, but it could go deeper, writes Mark Rowe.

There's no denying that it's an important subject and there have been enough scandals and affairs - not least the 'fiasco' of the security contract that the UK Government gave G4S for the London 2012 Olympics, that notoriously the multi-national contractor had to admit it couldn't fulfil on the eve of the Games, and the British Army had to step in. As Alan White says, the Government could have called in the Army in the first place; it didn't, presumably, because it wanted to do the security more cheaply. Another question could have been why the Government didn't hand out bibs and push the civil servants from their Whitehall desks, and get them to man the gates and perimeters and do the meeting and greeting instead - after all, what else would the civil servants be doing in August apart from going on holiday?! They did not, and it was not for a moment suggested at the time by anybody, because there are such things as terms and conditions of employment, and those government employees would not have stood for it for a minute. Nor might they have been very good at doing it. The Army adapted because they do; their proper role and what they are paid to do is fight the Queen's enemies.

In other words, there were good reasons to appoint G4S, or, as the Scottish Government did for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games (eventually) more than one security contractor, so as not to put all the eggs in one basket. Is Alan White proposing that the UK Government do everything itself - to own paper mills, to make its own stationery, and toilet roll? Of course not. So it is not a question of outsourcing bad and secretive, government in-house good and open; only of what balance. And it always has been - 400 years ago, the British state farmed out some tax-collecting.

Should the Government have kept on its books thousands of stewards and security guards, for 2012? Surely it was financially sensible to outsource to specialists, and to outsource the risk and the pensions and so forth also, in the same way that private firms, and public-private bodies such as art galleries in recent years have outsourced security guarding. Whether it's good for the staff or the service is another matter. But to repeat there are sound reasons all round for doing it, hence the author's conclusion that 'the shadow state' 'will continue to thrive' despite the 2012 affair, and the uncovering of shortcomings in other contracts, such as monitoring of tagging of offenders.

The 2012 security 'fiasco' was in a way a red herring and unrepresentative of the wider issue. The Olympics was a one-off that ran for a few weeks, although it was years in the planning. The private prison contracts, and offender monitoring, and probation services and so on, and beyond criminal justice into the health service for example, are not one-offs, but happening all the time - and there is another reason why the private sector loves such work, as the likes of G4S have admitted; it's always going to be there, and so is the UK Government, which is less likely to go bankrupt and stop paying the invoices than, say, the local football club (which has also in recent years gone strongly down the outsourcing route, leaving only a core of staff in-house) or nightclub.

It boils down, therefore, to contract management, the same as if a private firm outsources something, such as its IT or fleet management. If offender monitoring or any other UK Government outsourced work was done badly or gave bad value for money, would it have been any different if the managers were reporting to an outsourced provider or government direct? All work needs managing - isn't the real problem not that a 'shadow state' is fleecing us or unaccountable, but that the ones setting the contracts aren't looking after them very well?

Are HM Prisons for example tackling drugs in prisons supplied by drones any better than private prisons? If as Alan White says the likes of Serco and G4S are rewarded for 'market failure', aren't the companies only half the equation? It was a shame that in a book called 'Shadow State', the author had little to say about the state's responsibilities, rather than concentrating on (as in fairness its sub-title says) 'inside the secret companies that run Britain'.

It did mean that the author only told at best half a story.