Not only is the $1 billion contract awarded to detention centre operator Serco beyond the reach of public scrutiny, but Senate Estimates hearings today revealed that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship collects scant data on breaches and has limited knowledge and oversight of staff training levels.
In what was a stellar confirmation of the Greens’ reputation as Senate watchdogs, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young doggedly pressed DIAC assistant secretary Fiona Lynch-Magor over allegations that Serco has been posting untrained and inexperienced guards to Australia’s overcrowded detention centres, with surprising results.
When asked by Hanson-Young, the DIAC official was unable to list the number of times Serco had breached the "management and service" provision of the contract, relating to detention centre operations, because the contract "doesn’t record specific breaches per incident", instead measuring Serco’s performance under a "series of abatements that apply to certain metrics".
The abatements, issued as retrospective fines, have been occurring on Lynch-Magor’s admission "since the beginning of the contract", but are "not recorded in a recordable number". "Systemic" breaches trigger "continuous failure" under the contract, which has a multiplier effect on the abatement issued.
Senator Hanson-Young appeared increasingly frustrated with Lynch-Magor’s answers, which became more circuitous as the questioning continued. When asked whether a failure to train staff properly could be considered a breach, she replied that Serco was "required to undertake all the training we require them to do", and listed Certificate 2 requirements for centre chefs and guards.
Lynch-Magor told the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that DIAC had requested Serco prove their staff were properly trained "earlier this week", and had received an immediate response. When Senator Hanson-Young asked the number of staff who "were asked to leave", she was told that wasn’t information the department usually requested from Serco.
"So the department doesn’t know how many untrained staff have been on the ground… as of earlier this week?" the Senator replied.
The assembled DIAC officials assured Senator Hanson-Young they "have ongoing monitoring of the Serco contract" — a contract manager in each facility, plus centre and national level monitoring, and "would expect Serco to respond immediately."
"You’re telling me you have no record of how many times the contract supervisors have had to request staff be removed?" Senator Hanson-Young asked. DIAC asked the question be put on notice, ending that line of enquiry.
When queried about public disclosure, DIAC explained that those parts of the Serco contract that were outside public scrutiny were justified — centre maps, operational details, and commerical performance indicators.
The Senator didn’t buy it. "So the list of items that could qualify as a breach of the contract are not public, and the department doesn’t audit the list of breaches — what breaches happen, how many breaches happen — at what stage is there any type of transparency?" she asked.
By this stage Lynch-Magor was feeling the heat. She told the Standing Committee the abatements regime is audited and can be quantified. Serco’s abatements regime is a "performance metric" assessed against a number of criteria, compiled by DIAC monthly — individual breaches aren’t collated — and there is no ticking or crossing. It’s not a system where "five particular events occurred and that added up to the number five", Lynch-Magor said.
"And where is that publicly disclosed?" Senator Hanson-Young asked.
"It’s not publicly disclosed," Lynch-Magor confessed.
"So the contract whereby the list of requirements that Serco has to fulfill is not for public disclosure, the possible items that would qualify as a breach is not publicly disclosed, the performance of whether they are actually upholding or breaching that service delivery performance is not publicly disclosed — where in this process is there the public interest and transparency of this contract?"
Lynch-Magor made a noise much like the last puff of air being expelled from a balloon.
"It doesn’t exist, does it? If it’s up to Senate Estimates, well we need to see those things tabled," the Senator added.
"It might be worth noting Senator that we have an extensive process of internal and external auditors," Lynch-Magor added.
"I think I’ve made my point," Senator Hanson-Young concluded.
The Federal Opposition is currently seeking the support of the independents and Greens to conduct a broad-based inquiry into immigration detention.
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