The former deputy prime minister has called for an urgent investigation into the treatment of unpaid jobseekers, many of whom were bussed in from Bristol, who were used as stewards at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London.
Lord Prescott said it was “totally unacceptable” that benefit claimants were forced to sleep in the cold under London Bridge in the early hours of Sunday morning, adding that Close Protection UK, which was contracted to provide up to 30 unpaid stewards, had failed to “show a duty of care”.
In a letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, Labour’s former deputy leader said the allegations raised “serious questions” about using private firms to police the Olympics. He added a full investigation was now needed.
In his letter to Mrs May, he said: “If the allegations are true, it is totally unacceptable that young unemployed people were bussed in to London from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth and forced to sleep out in the cold overnight before stewarding a major event with no payment.
“I am deeply concerned that a private security firm is not only providing policing on the cheap but failing to show a duty of care to its staff and threatening to withdraw an opportunity to work at the Olympics as a means to coerce them to work unpaid.
“It also raises very serious questions about the suitability of using private security contractors to do frontline policing instead of trained police officers.”
The Guardian claimed the workers, including another 50 people on apprentice wages, were brought in as part of the Government’s Work Programme, where the unemployed must take up placements in order to continue receiving benefits.
It is alleged they were forced to camp overnight under London Bridge before they started work but sources at the Department for Work and Pensions said they were only outside in the cold for two hours after a “mix-up” when the driver of their bus refused to let them sleep on board.
On Bristol Indymedia last night, a contributor named ‘paster’ claimed to have collected two of the workers from a campsite near the M11 motorway following their gruelling 14-hour shift.
“When I arrived close to 11pm they were stood in a field, soaking wet, shivering with cold and close to exhaustion,” the article read. “One was dressed only in shirt and slacks as she had not been provided with any waterproof coat, save for a lightweight poncho and a hi-vis vest for the jubilee event.
“At 9am [on] Sunday they had been given a paper bag with a sandwich, muffin and packet of crisps in and told ‘don’t eat that now, it’s your lunch’. A paper bag, in heavy rain, three hours before lunchtime with no way of keeping it dry.
“One of them had been refused use of toilet facilities and hadn’t been able to [pee] for almost 24 hours, she had been forced to change into ‘uniform’ for the event in the open as there were no changing facilities, with other male staff refusing to give her privacy.
“This is a young woman, first time in London, first time away overnight without a member of her family trying to comply with [Department for Work and Pensions] DWP rules.
“Well as far as I am concerned she did herself proud. While others had given up and left in the morning, she stuck it through until after the Queen had passed and the crowd dispersed before asking for help.”
On Tuesday, Molly Prince, the managing director of CPUK, confirmed that a number of staff were unpaid but apologised for the fact that a number of their stewards had to sleep under London Bridge.
In a statement, she said: “The London Bridge incident should never have happened but was to some extent outside our control, the coach drivers insisted on leaving. For this we sincerely apologise, on investigation this morning the majority of the team were happy, fed and looked after as best possible under the circumstances.
“We are not in the business of exploiting anyone.”
Speaking about those who were unpaid, she added: “The only ones that won’t be paid are because they don’t want to be paid. They want to do this voluntarily, [to] get the work experience.” This was because they would no longer be able to claim jobseeker benefits if they accepted a wage for the work, she said.
The treatment of the workers, revealed by The Guardian yesterday, cast a shadow over the extended holiday weekend.
Thousands of people across the city braved the wet weather for much of the weekend to hold street parties and visit the Jubilee-inspired events.
More than 10,000 braved the gathering gloom on Saturday evening for a concert at The Mall Cribbs Causeway, headlined by Pixie Lott.
Beacons were lit in Barton Fields in Kingswood, Clifton Villagel, Mangotsfield and Brean Down to mark the Queen’s 60 years on the throne.
On the Downs, a beacon was lit by the city’s Lord Lieutenant Mary Prior and the Lord Mayor Peter Main at 10pm on Monday.
Mr Main told the BBC: “To me it symbolises the unity of the country, beacons are being lit all over the country. We’re one country, we’re celebrating the 60 years on the throne of Her Majesty the Queen.”
Earlier, thousands of people turned up with picnics to enjoy the party. The Deputy Lord Mayor, Councillor Geoffrey Gollop, took part in a balloon lift.
During the weekend, some 90 street parties were held across the city – making it the street party capital of the UK. In Redland on Sunday, more than 150 people took advantage of a Jubilee barbeque and concert, set up by the owners of the Kensington Arms pub on Stanley Road.
Despite the regular showers, a feast was served up for residents and visitors alike, before the ‘Kenny Crufts’ competition took place – with dog owners keen to show their pet were winners.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Edinburgh’s youngest son has said his father is getting better after visiting him in hospital on Tuesday afternoon.
Prince Philip is suffering from a bladder infection and was taken to hospital on Monday as a precaution.
The illness forced him to miss several events from the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations, including a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral.