What happens when Serco breaches its multimillion dollar detention centre contract with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship? Well, we can’t tell you, because no one is obliged to say.

According to a wire story that appeared online last Wednesday evening, Serco has been slugged with a $4 million fine by DIAC for breaching its detention services contract. Last year, more than 80 asylum seekers broke out of Darwin detention centre and staged a protest on the side of the road — it’s believed this may be part of the reason for the DIAC fine.

But DIAC, the minister’s office and Serco have been a closed shop this week. When seeking more details about the fine, all three offices gave Crikey the same “commercial in confidence” cold shoulder. Crikey understands the abatements totalled $2 million in November and $2.5 million in December.

Serco’s detention centre contract with DIAC is worth more than $700 million. Much of the contract is shrouded in secrecy, with many details of what Serco is required to provide yet to see the light of day.

A DIAC spokesperson told Crikey they couldn’t confirm the fine, the amount or what it was for, because those details are “commercial in confidence”. All Crikey could ascertain was that there is a provision in the contract for DIAC to sanction its partner: “The contract between the department and the detention services provider has provisions that allow Serco to be financially sanctioned for failure to meet agreed service delivery standards.”

The minister’s office was also less than forthcoming. Details of the fine and the figure fall under the contractual agreement, a spokesperson for Minister Chris Bowen said, and to provide any more information would breach “commercial-in-confidence”.

Serco also would not provide any details on the fines. A spokesperson even took umbrage with that description — “they’re abatements, not fines” — and said any sanctions issued were part of an ongoing review of Serco’s performance.

“The contract between DIAC and Serco has provisions that allow Serco to be financially sanctioned for failure to meet agreed service delivery standards,” the spokesperson told Crikey. “We cannot go into detail on the total amount of any fines imposed as this information is considered commercial-in-confidence.”

The spokesperson said that the confidential contract between Serco and DIAC was “growing” and that it was “particularly complex”: “This long-standing practice to not disclose such details has been in place over successive detention service providers, and covers governments over many years.”

Pamela Curr, from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says it’s likely the fines were handed down largely because of detainee breakouts. She says the real victims of these fines are the detainees, who are being supervised by staff fearful of their company being sanctioned.

“The government, in order to ensure they’re protected in the media from any escapes, impose punitive fines on the private contractor, who in turn impose punitive conditions on detainees,” Curr told Crikey.

Curr thinks there could also be a contract provision aimed at stopping the media from accessing detention centres.

“We hear a lot in the media about welfare checks,” she said. “They’re not welfare checks, they’re head checks. Officers will come in during the middle of the night and count the heads of children and their parents. This is in order to fulfill the daily head count and ensure no one has escaped.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey