Pub­lic sec­tor union con­demns Cen­tre­link move to pri­va­tise call cen­tre

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines / News - Christo­pher Knaus

The pub­lic sec­tor union has con­demned moves to pri­va­tise Cen­tre­link’s much-crit­i­cised call cen­tre, say­ing it would give Serco ac­cess to vast amounts of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.

The hu­man ser­vices min­is­ter, Alan Tudge, an­nounced that a sub­sidiary of multi­na­tional Serco – Serco Cit­i­zen Ser­vices – would be con­tracted to help op­er­ate Cen­tre­link’s call cen­tre.

Tudge said the move would add

250 staff in a sig­nif­i­cant boost to the ca­pac­ity of the call cen­tre. Serco staff would sup­ple­ment ex­ist­ing work­ers in the three year pi­lot pro­gram.

Tudge said the Serco work­ers would com­ply with all Com­mon­wealth pri­vacy and se­cu­rity re­quire­ments.

The an­nounce­ment is de­signed to ad­dress sig­nif­i­cant de­lays with the call cen­tre, a source of con­stant frus­tra­tion for so­cial se­cu­rity re­cip­i­ents.

“This part­ner­ship will as­sist Aus­tralians who are ac­cess­ing Cen­tre­link ser­vices, and help re­duce call wait times,” Tudge said.

The depart­ment of hu­man ser­vices recorded 42 mil­lion “busy sig­nals” be­tween July 2016 and June, ac­cord­ing to ev­i­dence in Se­nate es­ti­mates.

Av­er­age wait times were roughly 28 min­utes for the dis­abil­ity, sick­ness, and car­ers line, 30 min­utes for em­ploy­ment ser­vices and 16 min­utes for fam­i­lies and par­ent­ing. The wait time was worst for the “par­tic­i­pa­tion” phone line, at 38 min­utes.

In the fi­nan­cial year prior, about 42% of the 68 mil­lion calls made to Cen­tre­link were blocked. An­other 7.12 mil­lion calls were aban­doned.

The Com­mu­nity and Pub­lic Sec­tor Union quickly crit­i­cised the Serco de­ci­sion as an “ab­so­lute dis­as­ter”.

The union’s national sec­re­tary, Na­dine Flood, said it was an at­tack on pub­lic ser­vants, a threat to the in­tegrity of pri­vate in­for­ma­tion and a pri­vati­sa­tion that would down­grade the qual­ity of a crit­i­cal pub­lic ser­vice.

“We are seek­ing an ur­gent meet­ing with the depart­ment seek­ing more in­for­ma­tion on this du­bi­ous ar­range­ment,” Flood said.

“Clearly this deal has been kept se­cret for some time if Serco is plan­ning to be hooked into Cen­tre­link’s sys­tems in just a few weeks. Pro­vid­ing Serco with even the most ba­sic ac­cess to client records would be giv­ing the com­pany a fright­en­ing amount of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.”

The gov­ern­ment will spend $51.7m over three years to fund Serco’s in­volve­ment with the call cen­tre. Tudge said no ser­vices or data would go off­shore.

Serco is due to be­gin work­ing in the call cen­tre in com­ing weeks.

The an­nounce­ment comes after re­newed crit­i­cism this week of the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the “robo debt” scan­dal, which it­self ex­posed a lack of ca­pac­ity in Cen­tre­link’s call cen­tre.

The gov­ern­ment again stated it had no in­ten­tion of sus­pend­ing the au­to­mated debt re­cov­ery sys­tem, which is­sued at least 20,000 in­ac­cu­rate debts to Aus­tralia’s most vul­ner­a­ble.

It did so in a for­mal re­sponse to a scathing Se­nate in­quiry re­port. La­bor and the Greens both de­scribed the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the re­port as an in­sult.

“The Turn­bull gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to act on the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Se­nate in­quiry to over­haul the On­line Com­pli­ance In­ter­ven­tion pro­gram is an in­sult to the thou­sands of de­cent Aus­tralians who were caught up in the con­ser­va­tives robo-debt dis­as­ter,” shadow hu­man ser­vices min­is­ter, Linda Bur­ney, said in a state­ment.

Pho­to­graph: Scott Bar­bour/Getty Im­ages

Gov­ern­ment says Serco will com­ply with all Cen­tre­link pri­vacy and se­cu­rity re­quire­ments as it pri­va­tises call cen­tre.

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