Rupert Soames de Serco: scandal dice on the front line of outsourcing | Serco

Rupert Soames was driving north on a “dark and stormy night” at the end of 2013 when an article on the 6pm news made his ears prick up. Serco, the outsourcing giant that has become synonymous with taxpayer scam, has just sacked its CEO.

“I went to the headhunter that night and said, ‘So can I do this? Can I do it? ‘ I had always wanted to make a turnaround which was very important… but above all I wanted to do something in the public service.

Soames got the job and joined it in early 2014, when Serco was in contention for Britain’s most hated company label. He was on the dock for overcharging the Department of Justice (MoJ) by tens of millions of pounds for electronically tagging offenders, some of whom were dead or still in prison; his actions were in free fall; and he was prohibited from winning any new government job.

“I have a horrible habit of walking towards gunshots,” Soames says with a smile, sitting in the central London office of his PR adviser, wearing his trademark blue shirt embroidered with the words “Serco and proud of being”. (He ordered a lot when he was named.)

The new CEO’s approach combined enthusiasm with a heavy dose of gallows humor. His first call to staff was, “Bring out your dead. In response, he said, “quite a lot of bodies flew out.”

Soames whets his appetite for danger in the line of duty to his ancestors: his grandfather was Sir Winston Churchill.

“It may surprise you, but it’s something that comes with a family history of public service,” he says. “And I could never be a politician because I can’t remember people’s names.”

Westminster could have been the obvious choice: his older brother, Sir Nicholas Soames, is a former Conservative defense minister; his father was Sir Christopher Soames, a Conservative minister in the 1960s and later Ambassador to France.

The public service chosen by Soames was of an altogether more gritty kind. Serco works in some of the most sensitive corners of government, grappling with scandals on a daily basis. It manages six prisons for the Ministry of Justice; it accommodates asylum seekers; he manages the Santander bicycle rental program in London; and it helps to run


Age 62

Family Married with three children

Education Eton College, followed by Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford.

To pay £ 4.9million including bonus

Last holidays A trip to Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland, where he has a house.

The best advice he ever received Something he read rather than told him: J Paul Getty’s maxim, “Get up early, work hard, find oil.” However, he qualifies that by adding, “You can’t tell people who work 12-hour shifts in a prison that they’re not working hard enough.” This is largely an accident of birth. And this is largely luck.

Biggest career mistake An attempted management buyout, when he was in his thirties, of the Birmingham scale company Avery. “The timing and the funding were bad and I was fired.”

Word he abuses “Yes”, and another word “this is not for a family journal”.

How he relaxes “Walk the hills of Scotland and take a boat ride. If I weren’t doing this job, I’d like to be the coxswain of the RNLI lifeboat in Mallaig.

the much-criticized £ 37bn Covid testing and tracing system for the NHS.

Soames keeps a toilet brush on his desk – he calls it his “shit meter” – to emphasize how precarious this all is. “His hair is finely tuned, so if I walk in in the morning and they snap, something’s wrong somewhere.”

With a few exceptions, the shit-o-meter hasn’t rocked so hard in recent years. Serco’s shares haven’t quite taken off, but it has restored its dividend and is considering expansion.

Yet despite Soames’ best efforts, the principle of government outsourcing – where the state pays the private sector to do its job – has rarely seemed so uncertain. Water companies are under fire for pumping sewage into rivers and the sea, and a Conservative government has set out to renationalize services – from energy supplier Bulb to railways.

Soames says some of his predecessors were “deeply satisfied” that the trend of supercharged outsourcing by New Labor would continue unchallenged – and this led to Serco’s near-death experience and the collapse of his rivals. from Carillion to Interserve. Yet, he says, the principle still stands. “It’s called choice. This is called competition. This is called calling for new ideas.

Yet there are limits that even Soames will not cross – “actually fire shots” in the defense sector, or “make decisions or pass judgments about people’s lives” in prisons and hospitals. ‘immigration.

As governments relied heavily on the private sector during the pandemic for everything from developing vaccines to providing PPE, accusations of profit, cronyism and poor contract control have further unraveled this pact.

Serco – and Soames – were paid well for their testing and tracing work. At one point, Serco had 20,000 people working there – many of them calling contacts of infected people and telling them to self-isolate. Last year the company generated around £ 700million in Covid-related revenue globally – most of it in the UK – with a 5% profit margin.

There is a pause as Soames ponders whether contact tracing actually worked or was a waste of taxpayer money. “It’s a complicated answer. The tracing worked until the point where the pandemic got completely out of hand, ”he says. “I personally think it worked between times of the biggest peaks. “

Now, with Omicron endemic and around one in 15 people in the UK infected, tracing seems futile. Soames says the question of whether it was a good idea or whether it worked is above Serco’s pay level. “The government was following the advice of scientists, who said you had to do tracing… What if there had been no tracing? I think people would have been outraged.

Soames made a winding journey to Serco. The old Etonian went to Oxford University, where he was union president, member of the famous Bullingdon Club and DJ. His boss, Lord Weinstock, offered him a job at GEC Marconi, then moved to the software company Misys, before running Aggreko, a Glasgow-based emergency power generator company, to integrate him into the FTSE 100.

There has been anger over his salary at Serco: Last year’s £ 4.9million package brought his total income since joining to £ 23.5million. “I’m very well paid,” he says. “Sure, I think about the pay difference (with the lowest paid staff in the company), but I’m made of flesh and blood.”

We’re almost out of time, but there is still enough left for one last Soames the DJ party piece. He triumphantly puts his iPhone on the table and Samuel Barber’s blown chords Adagio for strings fill the room, before Puff Daddy’s lament for Biggie Smalls, I’ll Be Missing You, kicks in.

The CEO of Serco jumps up and makes the impression of a dancing porter: “This is what I want to have at my funeral.”

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