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Olympic ‘shambles’? Security firm’s guard shortage draws ire ahead of Games

The head of the private security firm G4S apologized today for falling short of the numbers needed to secure the Olympic Games. The government is turning to soldiers and extra police.

The runup to the Olympics is being overshadowed by a security “shambles” after the main contractor admitted it didn’t have enough guards to police the event.

The head of security firm G4S, Nick Buckles, apologized to a committee of MPs in Britain’s House of Commons today after he acknowledged the firm was about 3,000 people short of the required 10,000 personnel to properly secure the events.

The announcement of the shortfall came against a backdrop of Olympic confusion, with parts of London gridlocked yesterday by questions over dedicated Olympics bus lanes, and again today as taxi drivers clogged streets around Parliament to demand access to the lanes. The Police Federation – which represents rank and file officers who will have to fill in some of the security gaps – criticized dependence on the profit-motivated private sector while the government oversaw a 20 percent cut in police numbers.

“At the end of the day, we will be there to pick up the pieces and we will not fail,” said police chairman Paul McKeever. “However, it will force a debate on the gradual privatization of British policing, which is government policy and ideological.

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“We can now see what happens when a private company gets it wrong – the government has had to turn to the police and the Army who are the only people who can do it. We have built up a relationship with the British public over the past 200 years, policing by consent. But if the cuts continue, we’ll see more privatized firms taking over policing roles which we think is wrong.”

But a spokeswoman for industry body the British Security Industry Association, which includes G4S as one of its members, countered that view:  “This situation does raise unprecedented challenges for us but the security industry does provide useful help and support to the police, like CCTV coverage during last year’s riots.”

Government calls up more soldiers

After the staffing deficit was revealed a week ago, the government called up an extra 3,500 soldiers, despite pressures on troop deployment in Afghanistan and cutbacks to the Army. Home Secretary Theresa May said officials had been misled about staffing levels, noting that G4S had repeatedly claimed it had enough people. Elsewhere, nine police forces have been called in to provide officers at various venues when G4S staff failed to turn up for work.

A total of 13,500 soldiers were supposed to be on duty during the Olympics, which start on July 27. Security arrangements also call for 12,500 dedicated police with an additional 10,000 private sector staff from G4S, plus an unidentified number of secret service staff.  

But Mr. Buckles said the most the firm could now provide was around 7,000 – if they all turned up for work.

At today’s select committee meeting, Buckles said it might lose £50 million ($78 million) of the £280 million ($437 million) staffing contract, but said the company would not waive its £57 million ($89 million) management fee. When asked by Labour MP David Winnick if the controversy had been a “humiliating shambles for the company,” Buckles replied: “I could not disagree with you.”

The chief executive said he was in “complete and utter shock” when he was told on July 3, while on holiday in the United States, that there would be problems delivering the contract, prompting him to return to the UK.

Buckles said he was “deeply sorry” for the fiasco, but refused to resign from his £830,000-a-year job ($1.3 million), saying: “I feel I am the right person at the moment to make sure that happens and make sure this company comes out of this with its future intact.”