Ministry of Defence makes urgent plans to mobilise up to 2,000 more troops if security firm cannot deliver target of 7,000 staff
The Ministry of Defence is urgently making preparations to call up as many as 2,000 more troops for Olympic security operation if G4S fails to deliver on its revised target of 7,000 staff in place by next week’s opening ceremony, Whitehall sources say.
A fresh urgency was injected into the contingency preparations after defence officials started working with G4S in the last few days and gained a better understanding of the problems facing the company. Whitehall sources told the Guardian the contingency involved the possibility of calling up between 500 and 2000 more troops.
The home secretary Theresa May, who only last Wednesday authorised the call-up of 3,500 extra troops to bail out the private security company, has not made any further official request for troops and is working to avoid exactly that situation.
The chief executive of the London 2012 organisers, Paul Deighton, effectively took control of the G4S operation on Tuesday alongside senior Home Office officials working through venue security rotas “line by line” in a desperate attempt to avoid the embarrassment of a fresh call-up.
This frantic effort came as the G4S chief executive, Nick Buckles, admitted to MPs that he couldn’t guarantee to provide 7,000 trained and screened security guards by next Friday. Buckles has a list of 5,500 ready-to-deploy guards and is adding to them at a rate of 500 a day, but astonished MPs by telling them that even at this last stage he couldn’t predict the scale of “no shows” until recruits failed to respond to an email.
If G4S manages to reach its 7,000 target, the MoD will not be called upon again. “But it is a big if,” said a Whitehall source. “The military would prefer the Home Office to make the decision on whether to provide more military personnel sooner rather than later.”
Commanders have asked for a “decision point” – a moment this week when ministers look at the actual number of security guards being provided by G4S, and mobilises the MoD to fill in the gaps.
Though leaving the decision until next week will give G4S more time, it is a high-risk strategy that will make deploying more troops more difficult, the source said.
Sports minister Hugh Robertson admitted that there was a chance that further troops would be required and said there was no way of knowing how many G4S staff would turn up to work.
“We’re not absolutely sure of either of those two things. There is enough slack in the system to deal with some slippage either way. Nothing is certain, we keep it under constant review. We’re confident that having had a problem presented to us last Wednesday we’ve taken all the action we need to address that and build a bit of slack into the system.”
London 2012 organising committee chairman Lord Coe again insisted that security would not be compromised.
“My responsibility is to make sure that we get a Games that is safe and secure. We will do that, and it is to make sure that our teams, the Home Office and the military sit alongside G4S and mobilise and deploy exactly who we need to,” he said.
“If you are saying to me would I rather not be here, then the answer to that is of course. It would be ridiculous to say anything other than that. But my task is to deliver that. It was never about numbers, G4S interviewed 100,000 people, but it is about making sure they turn up.”
The confidence of MPs at Westminster in the private company’s ability to deliver even their revised target of 7,000 security guards visibly drained away during the two-hour grilling of the company’s battered chief executive before the Commons home affairs committee on Tuesday.
Buckles was forced to agree that the whole episode had been a “humiliating shambles” that had left his company’s reputation in tatters. He said he now regretted signing the £284m Olympic security contract which had only been taken on to “boost the company’s reputation”. The potential £10m profit had turned into a projected loss of £30m to £50m and the company had already dropped any hopes of bidding for the security contracts for the next football world cup or Olympic games which will be held in Brazil.
He tried to sugar the pill by agreeing to foot the bill for any extra military or policing costs, including funding a £500-a-head bonus for armed forces personnel who have to be brought back from leave, but outraged MPs when he insisted G4S still planned to keep the £57m “management fee” for the contract despite a woeful performance.
Buckles also defied expectations by insisting there was no question of his immediate resignation: “It’s not about me; it’s about delivering the contract. I’m the right person to ensure that happens,” he said.
The G4S chief executive said he was told the recruitment problems when he was on holiday in the United States on 3 July and flew home the same day. The paper trail submitted to the committee makes clear that Home Office ministers and officials, including James Brokenshire, and security supremo, Charles Farr, were kept in the loop on a daily basis from that point. It was another eight days before the home secretary, Theresa May, said the scale of the problem had “crystallised” to the point where it was apparent that G4S could not supply their original target of 10,400 guards and she had to call in the extra 3,500 troops.
But Buckles did not blame Home Office officials or ministers telling MPs that he was “100% responsible” for what had gone wrong.
The verdict from the MPs was damning. Committee chairman, Keith Vaz, said Buckles’s evidence had given the impression of a company that was “unacceptable, incompetent and amateurish”.
As it was being delivered the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, confirmed that 2,500 of the additional military personnel are to be housed in an exhibition centre at Wapping in east London. Tobacco Dock is a grade I-listed converted 19th-century warehouse. The remaining 1,000 troops are to be housed in temporary accommodation in Hainault, Essex and on military bases.
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