A private concern on a matter of public interest

BY AMY MCQUIREAPRIL 3, 2012

Originally published in Tracker Magazine. 

Occupy movement protestors outside Serco’s office in Perth in March 2012. The protestors are claiming the British company, which runs Australia’s immigration detention centres, lacks transparency and public accountability when it comes to fulfilling public service contracts. (AAP IMAGE/CORTLAN BENNETT)

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: A death in custody watch group has renewed calls for the state government to re-look at the privatisation of prison and transport services, after a damaging training manual was leaked detailing how one company handles asylum seekers.

Earlier this month, crikey.com.aubroke details of a 2009-2010 training manual from British company Serco, which currently holds the contract for the nation’s detention centres.

Serco has a $1 billion contract to run Australia’s nine detention centres, the website reported.

The manual instructs staff on how to kick, punch and jab fingers into detainees, as well as find “pressure points” to restrain them.

The federal government responded by stating the training manuals were outdated and had been superceded. But a Greens attempt to get the government to table the updated training manuals was unsuccessful.

Serco currently also holds the contract for prisoner transport services in Western Australia, winning the tender after private security contractor G4S was found partly responsible for the death in custody of respected Aboriginal elder Mr Ward, who died of fourth degree burns in the back of a prison van in 2006.

Serco also holds the contract for a juvenile detention centre in Western Australia.

The training manual’s release prompted the WA Death in Custody Watch Committee to renew its call for the government to move away from privatisation of justice services.

Secretary of the committee Bruce Campbell told Tracker that there were always issues with accountability.

“It’s always the issue of transparency,” Mr Campbell told Tracker.

“… People can apply to have an FoI (Freedom of Information) but quite often that information is not released because it is deemed to be a commercial-in-confidence matter.

“But it’s against the public interest to keep this a secret.

“… In the case of Mr Ward, it was very unfortunate because the immediate reaction from the government was to blame G4S. The immediate reaction of G4S was to blame the government.

“It went on for quite some months. If it wasn’t privatised, it would have been direct accountability on the heads of department or the minister.”

The state’s Community of Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association of WA (CPSU/CSA) also backed calls for the government to relook at privatization.

CPSU/CSA Branch Secretary Toni Walkington told Tracker the government didn’t have a reasonable argument for keeping services like corrections and prisoner transport services privatized.

She says the argument that there is a cost benefit is flawed.

“It’s not unheard of for private sector bids to be well below what it actually costs, and for them to then re-negotiate the contracts,” Ms Walkington told Tracker.

“In public sector bids, the process varies. Getting more funding is extremely rigorous… if there are overruns it is subject to much more intense scrutiny.

“(The government) always maintains that privatisation is more efficient, that the private sector is more innovative and that there will be a cost saving to taxpayers.

“But we believe it’s failed because it’s not in the public interest and there’s no evidence that those throwaway lines like ‘private is more innovative’ are true.

“There’s ample evidence, for example, that the public sector can be innovative.”

Mr Campbell says there is a real danger in privatisation.

“In regards to the ongoing privatisation of prisoners and person-in-custody transport services, I sincerely believe that it will contribute to another death in custody.

“It’s just simply due to the secrecy.”

He says the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services can only make recommendations, and the private contractor is under no obligation to fulfill them.

“The Liberal government is certainly not looking to improve the powers of the Inspector of Custodial Services…

“…What was unfortunate in the Mr Ward case was the government was made aware that the method of transporting prisoners throughout the deserts in the back of steel enclosures was not safe, but the inspector did not have the power to do anything.

“If it was a local government health inspector… they’ve got the power to stop a food transport vehicle like an ice cream van if it’s not safe. They can prevent that vehicle being used.

“But when it comes to a human life, its different.”

Ms Walkington says the issue is not just the lack of powers for the Inspector of Custodial Services.

“That’s not so much the issue. The problem is that contract management relies very much on the terms of any given contract.

“When you’re contracting public services, its usually quite complex.

“It’s difficult when you’re drafting the contract to make provision for every single eventuality or development.

“So the problem with contracting is not so much the inspector’s recommendations can’t be implemented, but if the contractor didn’t provide for whatever the inspector was recommending, you have to wait for that term or option in the contract to come about and renegotiate the contract or vary it, which generally comes at a cost.

“A private contractor will not do it without some additional incentive.

“In a government run organisation you can change your practices, and you can train people in different ways to do things… you can make adjustments and it’s a fairly easy thing to bring it to affect.

“Contracting out you have a great deal of problems.”

Mr Campbell believes privatisation is ultimately the problem, not the contractor.

“The government took the contract off G4S and awarded it to Serco.

“In the government’s eyes that’s a new business entity, and they look at it a fresh.

“Quite frankly, it has just taken it off one company that stuffed up and handed it to another.

“There’s still the same level of accountability, the same secrecy, and the same attitude towards people out in the community.”

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