Lifelines: part 2 – Why does Scotland do business with this company?

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By Kenneth Roy

I The story so far

Although his family is probably beyond comfort, it would be comforting for the rest of us to imagine that the death of Muhammad Shukat was an isolated incident in the history of Serco, the British-owned multi-national which has just been awarded two lucrative contracts in Scotland – one by David Cameron’s government, the other by Alex Salmond’s.

As we reported yesterday, Mr Shukat, a 47-year-old asylum seeker from Pakistan, died of a heart attack in a Serco-run immigration centre after waiting two hours for staff to respond to emergency calls from his room; when they did eventually come to his assistance, one defibrillator that might have saved his life was missing and another was broken. Four days after a coroner’s court delivered a damning verdict on this fiasco, the SNP administration blithely gave the company a £243 million contract to operate the ‘lifeline’ ferry service to Orkney and Shetland. The avoidable death of Muhammad Shukat was not a one-off. The company so favoured by governments on both sides of the border has form.

II How to distract a nose

Adam Rickwood was the youngest person ever to die in custody in Britain. While on remand at a ‘secure training centre’ in England – a place called Hassockfield – he was restrained by four adult carers. The restraint involved a technique known as nose distraction – a euphemism for squeezing or tweaking the nose or landing a karate-like chop on it. He bled for an hour. Six hours later, he hanged himself. He was 14 years old. The coroner called for an investigation into the use of force against vulnerable children.

Yarl’s Wood is an immigration removal centre in England which has also been periodically in the news for the wrong reasons. Last year, a member of staff was dismissed after claims that he had a relationship with a detainee and that the woman was pregnant. But that is the least of it. Three years ago, the children’s commissioner for England published a devastating critique of the failings of the regime, finding that the children of the women detained there were being denied access to critical health care. He concluded that the centre was unfit for children. A second investigation, by the area safeguarding panel, identified a disturbing catalogue of shortcomings by the operating company.

More recently, 54 women at Yarl’s Wood went on hunger strike in protest at what they claimed was inhumane treatment of themselves and their children, a complaint strongly supported by the Children’s Society which called their treatment ‘outrageous’.

Hassockfield and Yarl’s Wood are closely related as high-profile examples of the deficiencies of institutional care in this country. But there is another connection which is very rarely pointed out: the operating company in both cases was Serco.

Yet this is the company which has been awarded the contract to accommodate all of Scotland’s 2,000 asylum seekers in preference to the widely respected charity (Y People, formerly the Glasgow YMCA) which had been doing the job and doing it well. The charity was ditched after a tendering process known as an e-auction and, on 31 August, Serco will become the new provider, prompting fears of a change in management culture which may force some asylum seekers into destitution. The contract was awarded to Serco by the UK Border Agency, the same agency which only last month said it was ‘deeply worried’ over the Shukat case and hinted that Serco would be ‘held to account’.

III The straight punch

The concerns about this company’s treatment of people in its care are not confined to Britain. Serco runs nine immigration centres in Australia, holding 5,000 asylum seekers. An independent news website in Australia recently obtained a copy of the training manual used to instruct guards in these establishments. The manual, dated 2009, recommends the use of pain to subdue and control asylum seekers through such methods as straight punches, side angle kicks and knee strikes.

The Australian immigration minister, responding to the publication of the manual on the internet, explained that the document was out of date, but has refused to publish the current version. An Australian senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, has accused the company of ‘treating vulnerable people as if they are prisoners, when they have broken no laws and are asserting their international rights to seek asylum’.

While serious questions are starting to be asked by Australian politicians, there is a strange silence from the administrations in London and Edinburgh about their relationships with this company. David Cameron, the architect of the so-called ‘Big Society’, insists he is keen to award contracts for public services to voluntary organisations, but so far the main winner of this process is a company without democratic accountability, answerable only to its own shareholders, whose record of care has been widely criticised.

The enthusiasm of the SNP government to do business with Serco is more perplexing still. No doubt, however, the people of Orkney and Shetland, as they prepare to board the first Serco-run ferry, will be reassured by the company’s assurance that ‘we recognise our role in the wider community’ and that ‘we recognise our responsibility to act ethically and sensitively’.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review