A. Loewenstein Online Newsletter

What released Serco contract says about Australian government’s lack of standards

Posted: 09 Nov 2011

Following our world exclusive revelations yesterday about the Serco contract with the Australian government (storiesherehere and here), last night ABC Radio’s PM featured an interview with the editor of the independent publication that ran the articles, New Matilda:

MARK COLVIN: The news website New Matilda has obtained the contracts under which the private company SERCO runs Australia’s detention centres.

The website used Freedom of Information laws to get access to the first publicly available version of the 2009 Immigration Department contract with the British multinational.

The editor of New Matilda is Marni Cordell.

I asked her what the FOI revealed.

MARNI CORDELL: There’s actually quite a lot; there’s 700 pages of information.

So the main things that we’ve picked up on is that general security guards at detention centres can be hired without any formal qualifications. So they have six months before they are required to have a Certificate II which is a base level security qualification.

MARK COLVIN: So no security qualifications and presumably no psychological qualifications or anything like that either?

MARNI CORDELL: That’s right. There is a requirement that staff undertake mental health training but there’s no specific details about what that involves.

MARK COLVIN: Do they get any instruction during the first six months on how to deal with people who are depressed or trying to commit suicide?

MARNI CORDELL: They do undertake some induction training at the start of their contract and that involves mental health awareness training, cultural awareness, conflict de-escalation. But there aren’t many details on what that induction training involves.

MARK COLVIN: But what does the contract tell you about how those things, depression and trying to commit suicide, how those things are seen in terms of priorities?

MARNI CORDELL: There is a listing of different levels of incident; so there were three levels of incident; there’s critical, there’s major and there’s minor incidents and they all have different reporting requirements for Serco.

So critical incidents obviously involve things like hostage situations, riots, mass break-outs, but they also, surprisingly, include things like high profile visitor refused access; so if someone is high profile and has been refused access to a detention centre Serco is obliged to tell the department within 30 minutes of that happening.

MARK COLVIN: Are media visits also critical incidents?

MARNI CORDELL: Also media visits. So an unauthorised media presence at a facility is considered a critical incident.

Minor incidents are things such as voluntary starvation for under 24 hours, childbirth and clinical depression.

MARK COLVIN: Clinical depression is a minor incident?

MARNI CORDELL: That’s right.

MARK COLVIN: What about somebody trying to commit suicide?

MARNI CORDELL: That’s listed in a critical incident, yep.

MARK COLVIN: What about the openness, what about the transparency of Serco and its contracts?

MARNI CORDELL: There are a couple of mentions of their dealing with the media. So Serco employees are contractually obliged not to speak to the media at all. They’re not allowed to make a public statement or deal quote “with any inquiry from or otherwise advise the media”. And they are required to report to the department but there is no contractual obligation for an independent audit of their dealings.

MARK COLVIN: I think Serco has said in the past that it’s wrong to call it a secretive organisation or to say that its dealings with the public are secretive; what do you say now that you’ve seen the contract?

MARNI CORDELL: Well it’s obvious from the contract that they’re not only secretive but they’re also contractually obliged to be secretive and they’re not allowed to discuss any matters to do with the running of immigration detention centres.

MARK COLVIN: Is that their fault or the department’s fault?

MARNI CORDELL: Well it’s in the contract so they’re obliged not to do that.

MARK COLVIN: So it’s the department that’s imposing that on them?

MARNI CORDELL: I would say it’s coming from both parties but yes it certainly is in the contract.

MARK COLVIN: What about the independent audit, you just mentioned that briefly; does that mean that nobody can really oversee them?

MARNI CORDELL: There’s no obligation for there to be an independent audit, so that certainly makes it difficult to know what exactly is going on inside the immigration detention centres. So there are obligations for them to report directly to the Department of Immigration but there’s no requirement that an independent audit takes place.

MARK COLVIN: Was it very difficult to get this FOI request through?

MARNI CORDELL: It took some time yes. We’ve also got the FOI document upon the site; we also have a document that is a leaked version of the same contract. Serco has blocked some sections of the FOI document and some of those sections are actually available in the leaked document which is on our website as well.

MARK COLVIN: So what do they tell us that they don’t want us to know?

MARNI CORDELL: Some of the things are blocked in both documents but some of the things we were able to discover from the leaked document include quite an interesting list of they’re called abatement and incentive requirements; so where Serco is fined for poor performance and also rewarded with higher fees for good performance.

There’s also information about how often guards are required to check the internal and external perimeters of the detention centres.

MARK COLVIN: Other than just as a piece of investigative journalism, what do you hope to come out of this?

MARNI CORDELL: There’s actually a huge amount of information in these documents; there’s more than 700 pages and I would hope that other media pick up on it and really investigate what is going on and demand some more transparency about how Serco runs Australia’s immigration detention centres.

MARK COLVIN: Marni Cordell, editor of the New Matilda news website.

Exclusive: Serco hires untrained guards in Australia

Posted: 08 Nov 2011

The following exclusive, written with Paul Farrell, appears today in Australian magazine New Matilda:

The Gillard Government’s contract with Serco imposes no initial training requirements for security guards, according to documents obtained under FOI – and that’s causing damage to asylum seekers and to the guards themselves

Serco security guards in immigration detention centres are not required to hold any formal security qualifications for six months, according to its contract with the Immigration Department (DIAC).

The contract, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, reveals that the agreement between Serco and the Immigration Department only requires security guards to “obtain a Certificate Level II in Security Operations within six months of commencement”.

A Certificate II is the minimum security requirement for unarmed security guards, and many training organisations fit the entire course into just five days.

In the recent parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s immigration detention network  this issue was raised repeatedly and DIAC officials refused to clearly answer questions about the qualifications of security guards at detention centres operated by Serco.

This is what Labor Senator Trish Crossin asked DIAC representatives:

“If you have, for example, a security guard employed by Serco at your detention centres — that is their job description — what level of qualification are they expected to have?”

A straightforward question. This was their response:

Ms [Jackie] Wilson: We would have to check that. It is a cert II or III.

Mr [Andrew] Moorhouse: There is a cert, whether it is a cert IV or a cert III in security. They are required to have the training for their particular role.

Senator Crossin: What is the minimum? What is the level of classification that each Serco person has? What is the job description and what is their base qualification?

Mr [John] Metcalfe: Essentially they are role based descriptions and qualifications appropriate for those roles. We can take that on notice.

However, New Matilda can reveal that the contract lists only two categories of guards — general security and managerial — and that general security guards are employable at the outset with no security qualifications whatsoever.

This raises serious questions about the capacity of Serco guards to manage detention centres effectively. The recent riots at Villawood Detention Centre and at Darwin Detention Centre last year highlight a growing trend of Serco staff being unable to adequately manage conflict situations.

Some guards have already blown the whistle on the consequences of the lack of training, and these reports just keepcoming. The NT News recently reported that Serco staff working in Darwin’s detention centre are often taking stress leave due to their working conditions. The paper noted that the Certificate II in security operations required by staff to begin work is the same as pub bouncers. One mental health nurse told the NT News that, “we were told at our induction that (Serco workers) could have been making cappuccino or pizza the week before they started. Basically they are not trained.”

These conditions are taking their toll. We have spoken to a number of both former Serco staff and workers of its sub-contractor MSS who have detailed exposure to refugee trauma. Many of them reported developing mental health problems and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

According to the contract, Serco must ensure that all personnel attend “mental health awareness training prior to commencing work at the facility” and “a refresher course every two years”.

However, it is not specific in its requirements that staff be properly trained for stressful situations with vulnerable asylum seekers. The recent suicides at detention centres across the country highlight the need for security officers to be trained in handling such complex, stressful situations.

During the parliamentary inquiry, DIAC officers continued to stress the induction training that Serco officers were required to undertake. However, according to the contract, this training does not involve any security specific skills:

“1.1 Induction Training

All Service Provider Personnel must have completed Induction training before they commence

duty at a Facility that includes instruction in:

(a) cultural awareness;

(b) the Immigration Detention Values;

(c) conflict de-escalation;

(d) duty of care responsibilities;

(e) communication and interaction with Department Personnel, Stakeholders and other

service providers;

(f) problem solving and decision-making in the workplace;

(g) skills on interacting with People in Detention; and

(h) record keeping procedures.”

This is a vague set of criteria for training — especially in comparison to the detail set out in other parts of the contract including, for example, an inventory of all loose assets right down to knives and forks.

NM asked DIAC about the terms of the contract relating to security guards. Why were the training requirements not more stringent — and why was the induction training so loosely described? At publication no reply has been received.

Increasing reports of violence and self harm by immigration detainees indicate that there is a growing problem in Australia detention centres. The question for Serco and DIAC is whether these problems could be mitigated with better induction training and more stringent requirements of the staff paid to work with these most vulnerable people.

Exclusive: no audit requirement for Serco in Australia

Posted: 08 Nov 2011

The following exclusive, written with Paul Farrell, appears today in Australian magazine New Matilda:

Running detention centres is an important job. Why are the audit and reporting requirements for Serco so low? Paul Farrell and Antony Loewenstein report

Under the contract signed between Serco and the Department of Immigration (DIAC), which New Matilda has obtained under FoI, Serco is under no obligation to comply with any form of independent audit.

The financial management section of the contract does give DIAC wide ranging abilities to conduct audits of Serco’s management of detention centres but these can be conducted “by a department or its nominee” and there is no periodic requirement for this to occur.

Serco is required to be part of a “Joint Executive Report” compiled with DIAC regional management on a monthly basis that examines its management and performance. But the contract doesn’t specify how this reporting is conducted and in what capacity DIAC is involved.

Serco is required to submit monthly reports on security exercises, OH&S, emergency breakdown and repairs, illegal items, industry development, damage by people in detention and care-taker services.

Serco is also required to submit an annual report for each facility to DIAC. But the content requirements for this report are not onerous:

“Annual Report
(a) The Service Provider must submit an Annual Report for each Facility that:
(i) summarises key events during the year;
(ii) sets out the lessons learned; and
(iii) establishes targeted goals for the subsequent year.”

A recent investigation by Corpwatch reported that even though Serco receives hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from governments around the world, it has a poor track record as far as financial accountability is concerned.

NM asked DIAC why Serco is not required to comply with an independent audit in the terms of the contract, whether any audits had occurred and if so whether they were conducted by an independent organisation. At the time of publication we had not received a reply.

Serco is also required to compile “Incident Reports” to be filed with DIAC when certain events occur. The contract details three major categories of incidents: critical, major and minor. Critical incidents include death, bomb threats and suicide — but they also include “unauthorised media access” and “high profile visitor refused access”.

Curiously, this was reported several months ago as having been a later amendment to the contract but the document reveals that in fact these categories were always listed in this way and were agreed on by DIAC. These incidents need to be reported verbally within 30 minutes and in writing within four hours to DIAC.

Worryingly, some of the incidents considered “minor” include serious events that could be life-threatening. Clinical depression, substance abuse, voluntary starvation for less than 24 hours and the birth of children are only considered to be minor and only need to have a written report after 24 hours. All critical and major incidents are required to be audited but only 10 per cent of minor incidents need to be audited per month. These audits are internally conducted, and are not required to be independent.

Given there’s no independent oversight, this system relies on Serco fulfilling its reporting obligations. This, in turn, opens the possibility of incident reports simply not being filed.

During the Christmas Island leg of the recent Senate inquiry into Australia’s immigration detention network, Kaye Bernard, the General Secretary of the Union of Christmas Island Workers, told the committee hearing about an incident in which a Serco worker was stabbed — and no incident report ever reached DIAC:

Ms Bernard: The incident report was filed by the officer and when he went to get a copy of it, it had been put in bin 13. Bin 13 is commonly referred to by the detention workers as ‘the shredder’.

Mr Scott Morrison: Tell me a bit more about bin 13 then.

Ms Bernard: Bin 13 is when you have a completely overworked and understaffed facility, because of this client-detainee ratio. You have a huge reporting requirement and paperwork stacked up in boxes under the manager’s desk. It was put through a shredder.

Mr Morrison: So you are telling me that, even though an incident report was filed, to your knowledge, those incident reports are actually not reflected in the number of incident reports that may have been reported by DIAC or Serco?

Ms Bernard: Correct.

Mr Morrison: How many incidents are we talking about here? Given that there are thousands of incidents, albeit ones have been reported already, which is alarming enough, how many incidents do you think are not being reported?

Ms Bernard: If you take one incident — a riot with 200 people, one officer getting stabbed and others being injured, which was described in the media by DIAC as a tiff with unaccompanied minors — I do not know how many reports you could write up about that.

DIAC relies on incident reporting by Serco for real-time updates of what is happening in detention centres. In the absence of other real-time measures to log events, it is worrying if, as the above exchange suggests, the “Incident Management Log” is not an accurate reflection of what is happening inside detention centres.

We have spoken to a number of former Serco staff, who worked in many detention centres. They confirm that many incidents are not accurately reported — if at all — to avoid conflicts with management anger over potential financial sanctions from the federal government.

The Labor government pledged upon winning government in 2007 to implement humane and transparent policies towards asylum seekers. The lack of formal independent audit requirements make it impossible to know exactly what is happening inside immigration detention centres and to achieve the promised transparency.

Exclusive: Australian government contract with Serco revealed

Posted: 08 Nov 2011 07:37 PM PST

The following global exclusive, written with Paul Farrell and Marni Cordell, appears today in Australian magazine New Matilda:

Today NM publishes the contract signed between the Department of Immigration and Serco, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act

New Matilda has gained exclusive access to the first publicly available version of the 2009 Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) contract with British multinational Serco.

The contract was obtained through a Freedom of Information request and reveals the most comprehensive information yet about the running of Australian detention centres.

New Matilda’s analysis of the document reveals that:

  •  General security guards can begin work with no formal security qualifications and are only required to obtain a Certificate II within six months of working with Serco.

  • Clinical depression, childbirth and voluntary starvation for under 24 hours are considered “minor” incidents while unauthorised media access is considered ”critical”.

  • Of these “minor” incidents, only 10 per cent are required to be audited internally by Serco.

  • There is no contractual requirement of an independent audit of Serco’s management of detention centres.

The first 80 pages of the contract can be downloaded here. Links to the remaining sections can be found at the end of this article.

Other issues of note include:

  • Serco is obliged to provide phone services to people in detention but the contract specifies that mobile phone handsets “[must] not have a recording facility (either audio or visual)”.

  • Serco must also “control and limit” detainees’ internet access to pornography, FTP sites, and “prohibited sites in foreign languages”. It is not specified which sites are prohibited and under what law.

  • If a member of the public complains or provides feedback about an immigration detention centre, Serco must notify the department within one day and provide a written response to the person within two weeks, “setting out the action taken of the reason why no action will be taken”.

  • Serco is obliged to provide “tea, coffee, water and biscuits” when detainees have visitors and visiting areas must contain “hot/cold drinks and confectionery vending machines”.

  • Serco must “not provide access to the Facility for media visits unless the visit has been approved by the Department” and must “ensure that media personnel only conduct activities approved by the Department”.

  • Serco indemnifies DIAC from and against any loss arising from or as a consequence of any “death, or bodily injury, disease or illness (including mental illness) of any person including People in Detention” — this clause survives for a period of seven years following the expiration of the contract.

According to a letter from DIAC’s FOI officer, Serco objects to DIAC’s decision to release some parts of this contract and has exercised its rights under FOI law to block access to those sections in the document marked “s27 consultation”.

View the FOI officer’s decision and a full list of the documents that were blocked by Serco here.

However, New Matilda has also obtained a leaked copy of the contract in which some of these blocked sections are visible.

This version of the contract has not been officially released, and reveals:

  • The internal and external perimeter of the detention centres are only required to be checked by security guards twice a day; at the opening of the centre and before it’s locked up.

  • Checks to ensure detainees are “present and safe” are only required to be conducted four times a day.

  • A carrot and stick system of “abatements” and “incentives” where Serco is fined for poor performance and rewarded with higher fees for good performance

Read the leaked version of the contract here.

The fact that this contract has only been released now, more than two years after it was signed, reflects how closely guarded the agreement between Serco and the Federal Government remains.

Last week, Serco’s Australian CEO Bob McGuiness told Perth Now that he was “gobsmacked” to hear Serco described as a “secretive organisation” in the media. “I find that astonishing,” he said.

In fact, the contract prohibits Serco employees from speaking to the media at all. It reads:

“The Service Provider must not, and will ensure that its officers, employees, directors, contractors and agents do not:
Make any public statement;
Release any information to, make any statement to, deal with any inquiry from or otherwise advise the media;
Publish distribute or otherwise make available any information or material to third parties.”

The hypocrisy of McGuiness’s comments is also remarkable in light of Serco’s attempts to block access to information that the DIAC FOI decision maker has argued should be public.

The Labor government and DIAC agreed to the terms of this contract. By privatising immigration detention centres, successive Australian governments have kept these issues out of sight and out of mind, under the pretence of information being “commercial-in-confidence”. Bureaucratic buck-passing ensures little firm information is ever released.

Many parts of the contract have still not been released on the decision of DIAC’s FOI officer — including the names of the Serco directors who manage relations with DIAC and run detention centres.

Read NM’s extended coverage of the contract here and here.

Links to Serco contract (FOI version)

Volume 1, Part 1

Volume 1, Part 2

Volume 1, Part 3

Volume 1, Part 4

Volume 1, Part 5

Volume 1, Part 6

Volume 1, Part 7

Volume 2, Part 1

Volume 2, Part 2

Volume 2, Part 3

Volume 2, Part 4

Volume 2, Part 5

Volume 2, Part 6

New Australian poll shows support for Palestine growing

Posted: 08 Nov 2011

The following press release was issued yesterday:

Three in five Australians believe the United Nations should now recognise Palestine as one of its member States according to a poll conducted by Roy Morgan Research Pty Ltd.

The results are part of an independent national poll done by the respected Roy Morgan Research company.

“This is an outstanding result as it reflects the Australian people’s overwhelming support for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians to be freed from 40 plus years of brutal military occupation” said Ms Samah Sabawi, Public Advocate, Australians for Palestine.

The poll also found that 63 percent of Australians do not support Israeli settlers building homes on occupied Palestinian land.

“Settlement building is without doubt the single biggest obstacle to peace. Israel continues to build and expand these settlements in direct violation of International Law” said Ms Sabawi.

With a vote on Palestine due at the United Nations before the end of November, the support for an Australian ‘Yes’ vote was more than three times that of a ‘No’ vote.

The Morgan poll asked respondents: “In order for Palestine to be recognized as a full member state of the United Nations, existing member Nations must enter a vote of ‘yes’, ‘no’ or abstain from voting. In your opinion, how should Australia vote?”

A majority – 51 percent – agreed Australia should vote “yes”, whilst only 15 percent said “no”. Twenty percent believed that Australia should abstain from voting.

“The strong support for a ‘Yes’ vote demonstrates that Australian voters support the bid by Palestine. This should encourage the Labor Government, led by Prime Minister Gillard, to position itself in-line with public opinion and on the right side of history” concluded Ms Sabawi.

As a collective of broad-based advocacy groups in Australia, we ask that the Government heed the call of the public and condemn the illegal settlements being constructed by Israel and support the rights of the Palestinians.

For comment or further detail, please contact Moammar Mashni (AFP): 0419 999 773.

This survey was commissioned by: Australians for Palestine (AFP, Melbourne), Australian Friends of Palestine Association (AFOPA, Adelaide), Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN, Canberra), and Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine (CJPP, Sydney).

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