The control room: the sinister face of Scotland’s NHS

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• The state-of-the-art hospital patrolled by private security guards

• The £450million contract with a company officially criticised for its care of vulnerable children and women
 
by Kenneth Roy
 
Welcome – as they say – to a brave new world. Let me introduce you to ‘the facility’ (as it is sometimes called).

Officially opened by the Queen last month, it enjoys the monarch’s seal of approval as the Forth Valley Royal Hospital. It replaces the infirmaries at Stirling and Falkirk, it is the largest NHS construction project ever undertaken in Scotland, and it was financed by private capital at a cost of £300m. All this makes the Forth Valley Royal Hospital rather special.

But there are other, even more extraordinary, facts about ‘the facility’ and some are not as well-known as they ought to be.

NHS Forth Valley – the public body responsible for the project – has announced proudly that, in a ‘first’ for the health service in this part of the world, security officers employed by a private company are patrolling the hospital. As well as maintaining a ‘visible presence’, they are constantly ‘monitoring the site’ from a control room ‘where information is gathered from more than 150 CCTV cameras’. NHS Forth Valley has given an assurance that the security people are employed by an ‘international service company’ and ‘trained in techniques approved by the Security Industry Authority’.

This public-private partnership is promoted by NHS Forth Valley in the usual blue-sky language favoured by the modern bureaucracy. The press has shown little or no interest in it. Perhaps such security is the price to be paid for a ‘facility’ which contains no fewer than 4,000 rooms. Yet it cannot help sounding creepy, even sinister.


Since these exciting announcements – the use of extensive private security and the recruitment of robots – were made separately, the patients of Stirling and Falkirk may be unfamiliar with the strong link between them.


In another ‘ground-breaking initiative’ (which initiative does not break ground these days?), the ever-enterprising NHS Forth Valley has contracted a ‘facilities management company’ to engage a team of robots to do work traditionally performed by relatively low-paid functionaries called human beings. These ‘self-guided’ vehicles operate in their own corridors, with exclusive access to their own lifts, and are employed to ‘keep patient areas free of trolleys and other clutter’. They move hospital waste, linen, patient food and clinical supplies.

What any of this has to do with ‘Bringing Service to Life’ (the slogan of the facilities management company) is not immediately obvious. It seems not to have occurred to NHS Forth Valley that some patients actually like visible signs of activity in a hospital. The media did express a mild interest in the robotic approach to health care in the Forth Valley – there was an amusing little film on ‘Reporting Scotland’ about it – and the facilities management company enjoyed loads of favourable notices.

Since these exciting announcements – the use of extensive private security and the recruitment of robots – were made separately, the patients of Stirling and Falkirk may be unfamiliar with the strong link between them. The ‘international service company’ and the ‘facilities management company’ are one and the same: an organisation called Serco, once accurately described as ‘the largest company you’ve never heard of’. Serco is making a vast fortune out of the fashion for outsourcing public services, a particular obsession of the UK government.

The largest company you’ve never heard of runs Britain’s military communications network, keeps watch on Greenwich Mean Time, organises Boris Johnson’s London bike scheme, maintains Ireland’s traffic lights, trims Canterbury’s trees, and is in charge of Glasgow City Council’s IT system – these are just a few examples of its largely unsung contribution to public life. It claims it can do all of this more efficiently than public bodies and, despite the cuts in spending affecting almost everyone else, will soon be doing much, much more. Cameron’s government has pledged to put nearly all state-run services out to contract: an undertaking which is music to the ears of Chris Hyman.

Who he? Mr Hyman is the most powerful man you’ve never heard of running the largest company you’ve never heard of. An evangelical Christian from South Africa, he is said to fast weekly and pays a tithe of his salary to the pentecostal chuch of his choice. Since the salary in question is £5m a year, Mr Hyman is unlikely to starve (when he isn’t fasting). ‘My faith is very strong,’ he says. ‘My whole life is driven by God.’


Hassockfield and Yarl’s Wood are closely related as high-profile examples of the deficiencies of institutional care in this country. But there is another connection which is rarely pointed out.


The name Adam Rickwood may be more familiar – to those in the caring professions at least – than that of Chris Hyman. Adam Rickwood was the youngest person ever to die in custody in Britain. While on remand at a secure training centre in England, Hassockfield, he was restrained by four adult carers. The restraint involved a technique known as nose-distraction, which has been variously described as squeezing or tweaking the nose or landing a karate-like chop on it. He bled for an hour and, six hours later, he hanged himself. He was 14 years old. The coroner called for an investigation into the use of force against vulnerable children.

If Hassockfield has become a byword for care of vulnerable children, Yarl’s Wood – an immigration removal centre – has become a byword for care of vulnerable women. The company which runs it says it is committed to ‘caring for the detainees with decency and respect’ – that, at any rate, is what it says on its website. A few weeks ago, an employee of the company was dismissed over claims that he had had a relationship with a detainee and that the woman was now pregnant.

But that is the least of it. Two years ago, the children’s commissioner for England issued a damning critique of the failings of the regime, finding that children in the centre were denied access to critical health care. He concluded that the centre was unfit for children. A second investigation – by Bedfordshire Local Safeguarding Board –  identified a disturbing catalogue of failures by the operating company and other agencies. Last year, 54 women detained there went on hunger strike to protest at what they claimed was inhumane treatment of themselves and their children: a complaint strongly endorsed by the Children’s Society which called the treatment ‘outrageous’.

Hassockfield and Yarl’s Wood are closely related as high-profile examples of the deficiencies of institutional care in this country. But there is another connection which is rarely pointed out: the operating company in both cases is the largest company you’ve never heard of.

Yes, indeed: the same Serco which is now the business partner of NHS Forth Valley. Mr Hyman’s company has been given a 30-year contract – repeat, 30 years – to provide a range of support services at its new ‘state-of-the-art’ hospital, including security, portering, cleaning and maintenance. The contract is worth a staggering £450million. Nice NHS work if you can get it. Serco often does.

Next week, Kenneth Roy continues his investigation into Forth Valley Royal Hospital

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