Lifelines: part 1 – The untold story behind a death in custody


By Kenneth Roy

I The broken defibrillator

When a man named Muhammad Shukat, a 47-year-old asylum seeker from Pakistan, suffered a heart attack in his cell at an immigration centre near Heathrow airport, his room-mate pressed the emergency buzzer repeatedly for two hours without response.

Nursing staff finally arrived at 5.30 in the morning. But even then there was no immediate attempt to treat Mr Shukat for the symptoms of a heart attack or to summon an ambulance. Instead they gave him aspirin and Gaviscon, a remedy for indigestion. His heart stopped beating. At that point the staff fetched an emergency medical kit for a defibrillator only to find that it had not been packed. They did manage to find another defibrillator, but it was broken. The man died.

Three weeks ago, a coroner’s court decided that, if ‘better procedures’ had been followed, the life of Muhammad Shukat might have been saved. The UK Border Agency, which has outsourced the running of the centre to a private operator, called this verdict ‘deeply worrying’, demanded radical measures to address the issues arising from the case, and promised that contractors would be ‘held to account’ for such serious failings.

The outcome of the inquest was briefly reported in one or two newspapers, attracting little if any comment. Mr Shukat was dead within hours. So was the story.

II ‘Removing the uncertainty’

Five days later, in Edinburgh, a court case of a different kind ended in victory for the Scottish Government’s ‘preferred bidder’ for the lifeline ferry service to Orkney and Shetland.

An unsuccessful bidder mounted a last-minute legal challenge to have the deal blocked on the grounds that the tendering process had been flawed. The Court of Session dismissed the appeal, and the Scottish Government promptly announced that the new company would take over the run to the northern isles from 5 July.

It is a highly lucrative contract – worth £243 million over six years. Labour has questioned the wisdom of taking the service out of the public sector and awarding it to a private operator. The maritime unions are worried about the level of service which the operator will provide, and are seeking reassurances. But transport minister Keith Brown seems to have no doubts. He said that the decision would remove the uncertainty among islanders about the future of the service. The islanders themselves have given the news a cautious welcome.

Although the story has been widely reported in Orkney and Shetland, it has created few ripples beyond them.

III Held to account?

No connection has been made between an incriminating verdict at a coroner’s court in London, and the bullish announcement of a major ferry contract in Edinburgh. But there is a connection; and it ought to concern us. The company which failed to prevent the death of Muhammad Shukat is the same company which, in three weeks’ time, will be running the ferries to Orkney and Shetland.

Its name is Serco. Its chief executive is Christopher Hyman, a South African-born evangelical Christian who donates a tenth of his salary to a pentecostal church. But since Mr Hyman earns £5 million a year, he has enough left for the groceries. Few people have heard of Mr Hyman or his company. This is because Serco maintains a discreet public profile, except on those unfortunate occasions when things go badly wrong and it cannot avoid a little unfavourable exposure.

Past experience suggests that the cloud over the company after the death of Muhammad Shukat will quickly pass, and that Serco will go on taking full advantage of the Cameron government’s fetish for outsourcing…well, just about everything. Indeed the idea that Serco will be ‘held to account’ is laughable. The UK government’s way of holding Serco to account is to keep dishing out the mega bucks. The self-styled ‘facilities management company’ receives 90% of its business – current turnover £1.3 billion and rising – from the public sector and its tentacles are everywhere.

Wondering about the time at Greenwich? Serco keeps watch. Hiring one of Boris Johnson’s bikes? You’ll get it from Serco. Admiring the trees in Canterbury? Serco clips them.

IV A finger on the buzzer

Suggestions that Scotland’s SNP government is less enthralled by outsourcing in general, and Serco’s genius in particular, than its ideologically driven counterpart in London, are proving to be wide of the mark. A public body answerable to Holyrood, Forth Valley Health Board, handed Serco a £450 million, 30-year deal to provide a range of support services for its new hospital at Larbert. As a result, the company is one of the largest employers in the Forth Valley. The ferry contract is another major breakthrough for Serco north of the border.

What next? Will Alex Salmond simply give Chris Hyman a call when he is setting up an independent Scottish military ?

The idea is not as fanciful as it sounds. One of those nice little Serco earners not much mentioned in the mainstream press is its recent £1.5 billion deal with the Ministry of Defence to ‘provide and maintain’ Britain’s nuclear warheads. The contract ‘covers the entire life-cycle of nuclear warheads from concept and design, through to assembly, decommissioning and disposal’.

Let’s get this into perspective, shall we? A company which fails to respond to an emergency buzzer for two hours, which neglects to pack a vital piece of life-saving equipment in an emergency medical kit, is maintaining our nuclear warheads?


And the same company – which could not lay its hands on a working defribrillator which might have saved the life of Muhammad Shukat – is about to operate a ferry service across the Pentland Firth?

Yes again.

But there’s better news still, from Serco’s point of view at least. Despite all the hollow talk about holding the company to account, the UK Border Agency has just handed it a lovely new contract to accommodate all of Scotland’s asylum seekers.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review