Public sector union condemns Centrelink move to privatise call centre
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.
Government says Serco will comply with all Centrelink privacy and security requirements as it privatises call centre.