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Ministerial statement to Senate Estimates Committee.
Senator Amanda Vanstone MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION AND MULTICULTURAL AND INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS
Ministerial Statement to Senate Estimates Committee
There has been considerable public comment and debate on the circumstances surrounding the detention of Ms Cornelia Rau and the removal of Ms Vivian Alvarez Solon.
The Government is absolutely committed to determining the facts of each case and taking all appropriate steps that might flow from that. In February I appointed Mr Mick Palmer, the former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of Ms Rau’s detention. Mr Palmer’s report will determine independently the facts and recommend measures to address lessons learned. Following consultation with Mr Palmer and in the light of his assessment of the scale of inquiries required, I extended Mr Palmer’s reporting date from the end of March and provided significant augmentation of resources with the appointment of Mr Neil Comrie, former Victorian Chief Commissioner of Police.
During my absence overseas in May, Mr McGauran, the acting Minister, asked Mr Palmer to add to his inquiry the case of Ms Vivian Alvarez Solon.
Mr Palmer made clear last week his desire to report at the earliest opportunity and I welcome this. Until his report on Ms Rau is concluded in late June, it is not possible to speak with authority on that case. The other cases which have been referred to the Palmer Inquiry will be the subject of later reports.
Despite pressure and speculation from the media, I am of the firm belief that it is better to avoid, as far as possible, public airing of gossip, innuendo or comments, the veracity of which can only be confirmed by a full examination of all of the information available.
Without pre-empting the findings of Mr Palmer, there are some improvements that can be made now.
Following the Rau case I asked my department to consider changes that could be put into place forthwith to improve performance. As a consequence, in February 2005, I announced:
â A 28 day limit - in all but exceptional circumstances - on the time immigration detainees can be held in prison, a watch-house or similar
state corrections facility in those jurisdictions where an Immigration Detention Facility is not available. â Fingerprinting of people detained. Following regulatory changes people detained can be required to provide a finger print, without their
consent if necessary. â Further advice was given to staff clarifying and strengthening procedures that should be followed to try to establish a person’s identity.
While the then current procedures worked in the majority of cases, the very complex circumstances surrounding Ms Rau’s case highlighted the need for clearer and more precise guidance for staff. â Access to data-bases. I wrote to the Justice Minister, Senator Ellison, asking him to formally pursue the issue of access to databases with
relevant Commonwealth and State law enforcement agencies. I also asked the Secretary of my department to pursue the same issue with the Heads of Commonwealth Law Enforcement Agencies (HOCOLEA). â Referral of complex cases to Canberra for guidance. Where a person’s identity or status is not confirmed within 28 days, staff would be
required to consult with senior staff in Canberra on the ongoing management of the case.
Today I am announcing further changes which have either been already implemented or are in the process of being implemented. This is as a result of the department acknowledging the Government’s desire for continuous improvement. These are:
Establishment of a National Identity Verification and Advice Unit in DIMIA Head Office in Canberra - established at the beginning of May 2005.
â The unit will ensure complex cases are identified as early as possible and are rigorously, consistently and quickly dealt with.
â It provides advice to state and territory case officers about how to go about identity checking, and be a point of referral for difficult cases.
â It manages an “early warning” mechanism, whereby cases involving complex identity issues are systematically referred to it for advice.
â It analyses complex cases to help the ongoing development and review of policy on establishing identity; and
â The unit is staffed by experienced officers with legal and/or systems experience and a manager has already been appointed.
Appointment of immigration detention review managers in each state and territory where people are detained - by the end of May 2005.
â The managers will review cases where the person’s identity and status are not quickly confirmed and ensure compliance with standard
procedures. â These officers will stand apart from the daily compliance activities of my department. They will ensure that decisions to detain are soundly
based and regularly reviewed and will keep detention arrangements for individuals under constant review.
Enhancement of health services in immigration detention centres
â A psychiatrist will now visit Baxter Immigration Detention Facility every two weeks - or more frequently if required - (beginning 28 May
2005) compared to every six weeks previously. â Commencing next week will be the progressive implementation of two new psychiatric nursing positions which will achieve 7 day
coverage at Baxter, including on-call arrangements at night. â My department has already started working on implementing procedural changes identified in the recent Federal Court judgement about
detention health services. â Work to improve access to care outside of detention facilities for immigration detainees.
Improvement in case related information management processes
â Records will be centralised within the portfolio and across other agencies or service providers relating to individual detainees.
â Integration of departmental information and detention services provider information is important for progressing cases and meeting
detainees’ individual needs. â However, it needs to be recognised that appropriate controls still need to be in place to ensure the privacy of sensitive medical information.
Mental health issues have clearly played a part in a number of cases. This includes circumstances where an individual comes to the attention of DIMIA with a pre-existing mental health issue, the provision of appropriate mental health services in detention facilities and access to state mental health services.
I anticipate that Mr Palmer will have a number of recommendations in this regard, including the management of people who present to immigration with pre-existing mental health issues. As interactions between mental health agencies and law enforcement agencies is a broad issue with which Mr Palmer is familiar, I will be particularly interested in what he recommends in this area.
People with pre-existing mental health issues can exacerbate complexities in establishing their identity. In view of the relevance of identity issues, I have also asked my department to look at any further options for the use of biometrics.
I am fully aware of the importance of proof of identity as it has been an important issue in two of my previous portfolios. I am aware that the prospect of biometric technology raises complex issues of policy and implementation. There are considerations of privacy, the merits of the various technical options open and the need to maintain the speed and efficiency of Australia’s current entry procedures (Visas and ETA).
I have already indicated that I consider that there may be a need to look at the Migration Act to identify any areas where greater flexibility may be possible to assist the department to be more responsive to individual circumstances.
You can make changes to policy, processes and legislation. But these will be of little benefit without cultural change.
In DIMIA, I envisage this cultural change will include customer focus, timeliness, openness to complaints and appropriate mechanisms to identify problem areas. To achieve this, the culture of the department must recognise that complaints are an opportunity to review, change and improve performance to do things better.
The Department of Immigration is in many respects a can-do department. It manages a highly successful and rapidly growing skilled migration program; it delivers the world’s third-highest refugee and humanitarian intake, backed by the delivery of world-class settlement services for new arrivals.
In the extremely difficult area of unauthorised boat arrivals and offshore processing the department demonstrated an excellent ability to meet the Government’s policy requirements, despite being faced with the demands of more than 3,000 unauthorised boat arrivals per year, for a number of years.
Nonetheless, the Government now wants the Department of Immigration to be a can-do department in terms of changing its own culture to be one that is user-friendly and has an open culture of continuous improvement.
I have asked the Secretary to position the department to be able to rapidly respond to whatever changes are required as a consequence of the Palmer report. I have also asked him to identify people suitable to be directly involved in driving and playing a lead role in the implementation of identified or necessary changes.
I recognise that it may be appropriate to involve external expertise.
To move ahead, it is important to have a clean slate. It’s also important for those outside the department, to understand the nature of cases which are being examined.
The category of “released not unlawful” is not necessarily an indication of wrongful detention. Consequently, not all these cases will be cases of concern.
I am advised by my department that the range of circumstances encompassed by “released not unlawful” is very broad. For example:
â People detained for very short period of time whilst their identity and legal status is determined
â People whose status changed whilst in detention including legal outcomes and children attaining citizenship on their 10th birthday.
Minister McGauran added a term of reference to enable the Palmer Inquiry to examine and make findings in relation to any cases referred during the course of the Inquiry.
The cases referred are those where the individual is listed as having been ‘released not unlawful.’ The total number of cases to be examined through the Palmer Inquiry is 201. The department has gone back as far as the records will allow. All will receive careful, independent review to establish the facts.
As Mr Palmer indicated in his media statement of 20 May 2005 he discussed with me the future conduct of the inquiry and his desire to finish his report before the end of June. I agreed with his proposals; a) that he would complete the Rau Inquiry; and; b) that Mr Palmer would make recommendations for handling the completion of those cases.
Mr Comrie, who has had major conduct of the Alvarez and other cases, is continuing that work.
Given Mr Palmer’s statement last Friday, that investigations to date into the Alvarez case confirm key issues of concern and will be reflected in his findings and recommendations to be completed shortly, I’m confident that Mr Palmer’s report will provide a strong basis for the department to move forward with the challenges ahead.
25 May 2005