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

Following… our world exclusive revelations yesterday about the Serco contract with the Australian government (stories here,… here 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.