Human Rights, Procurement and Accountability

RightsNI is delighted to welcome this guest post by Elizabeth Nelson. Elizabeth Nelson is the Parliamentary and Campaigns Officer at the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), an NGO working for human rights and racial equality across Northern Ireland. Her role includes coordination of the NI Assembly’s All Party Group on Ethnic Minority Communities, as well as lobbying government officials and politicians on issue of concern for black and minority ethnic communities, and coordinating NICEM’s media and communication efforts, including the quarterly policy magazine ‘Minority Rights Now.’ She completed her Master’s in Human Rights Law at Queen’s University Belfast.

On last Monday evening (Oct 22nd), the All Party Group on Ethnic Minority Communities gathered experts from the NGO, academic and statutory sectors to examine the human rights implications of contracting out government duties to private contractors.

The seminar, entitled ‘Human Rights, Procurement and Accountability,’ focused specifically on the UK Border Agency (UKBA)’s recent awarding of a contract for the provision of housing and accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers to SERCO, a large multinational that is also responsible for running Yarl’s Wood and Colnbrook detention centres in England, and Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia. Grave concerns have been raised about the treatment of detainees in these centres, including reports of assault, disproportionate use of force and inadequate living conditions.

In a recent High Court judgment of 5 July 2012, SERCO was found in breach of Article 3 (right to be free from inhumane or degrading treatment) and Article 8 (right to private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The case concerned the unnecessary use of restraints at Colnbrook Detention Centre, where FGP (the claimant) was restrained continuously during nearly nine days of hospitalization either by ratchet handcuffs or closet chains. This included being attached to security staff while showering, using the toilet, during medical consultations, while receiving treatment, and while sleeping.

SERCO was also found at fault in the case of Muhammed Shukat, an asylum seeker who suffered a heart attack at Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre. The report of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s office found that medical staff failed to act quickly enough when Shukat’s cellmate pressed the emergency buzzer at least ten times over the course of two hours.

And as recently as last Wednesday morning, the Guardian shed light on new allegations, this time with G4S, the private company in charge of Cedars, the UKBA’s new pre-departure accommodation near Gatwick. An unannounced inspection of Cedars by Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, found that force was used against 6 out of 39 families at Cedars, and, most worrying, force was used against a pregnant woman during her removal.

It is with concern, then, that Northern Ireland receives SERCO as its new custodian of the accommodation for refugees and asylum seekers, one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

Providing a human rights context for Monday’s discussion, Professor Colin Harvey of Queen’s University Belfast framed the conversation by reminding the audience that this treatment of asylum seekers in particular is part of an overall policy, dictated by Westminster, that focuses on restricting access and discouraging people from coming to the UK to seek asylum.

What’s missing, he said, is a regional approach to these issues, which focuses on making sure Westminster takes into account our regional situation and our regional values. This is already being done in such areas as agriculture and fisheries, so why not asylum and immigration? Were there conversations with local stakeholders during the procurement process, in order to better understand the issues on the ground in Northern Ireland?

David Carson, Divisional Director of the Central Procurement Directorate (CPD) (part of the Department of Finance and Personnel – DFPNI), explained that where services  are contracted by government, government is still responsible for compliance. Furthermore, under their procurement policies, where a company has disclosed a conviction for a breach of any law, they can be excluded from the procurement process. He also said that for the CPD, conversations with stakeholders would be seen as key, particularly when contracting for services that would affect vulnerable populations.

Stressing the need to properly manage a contract – in particular monitoring the actions of the contractor – Mr. Carson said that the SERCO case and the attention it has received has caused the CPD to look again at its own practices and contract documentation.

But, as Justin Kouame, chair of the Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum Seekers (NICRAS) pointed out, it is very difficult to actually monitor what a contractor is doing – and to stop abuses before they happen. Very often, we don’t know about human rights abuses until after the fact, as they are largely dependent on people making a complaint and that is a problem. He pointed out that for asylum seekers, there is a fear that complaining will affect their claim for asylum with the Home Office. This is why putting measures in place before the awarding of a contract is so important.

Mr. Kouame emphasized the vital need for training for staff of private contractors working with vulnerable people, in areas like diversity, cultural awareness, anti-racism, how to conduct a needs assessment and, particularly in this SERCO, training specifically on the law and context surrounding refugees and asylum seekers.

He recommended that this training be conducted before the awarding of a contract, and that this should be a stipulation for the awarding of any contract for government services. He also recommended that no company should be awarded a government contract if they have been found in breach of human rights by a court, or if they have attained a certain quota of complaints against them.

This would show a commitment by government to the rights and needs of vulnerable people over a financial bottom line.

It is this sensitivity towards asylum seekers and refugees, and an understanding of their unique and often tragic situation, that should set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK – a theme reiterated by several panelists and audience members.

As one community representative stated quite succinctly, many refugees and asylum seekers are driven from the homes due to the actions of private contractors in other countries – and now, we are handing them back to private contractors; this one in particular already has a bad human rights record.