THE National Disability Insurance Agency has caused an uproar in the disability community by hiring the international outsourcing company Serco to run its call centres.
The British-based Serco has become a byword for those opposed to the privatisation of government services and its expansion into Australia has seen it run detention centres and recently win a contract to provide call centre services for Centrelink.
The Serco move into the Australian disability sector comes as further concerns are raised about the planned closures of the Stockton, Tomaree and Kanangra (Morisset) disability centres, which are now likely to stay open years longer than the NSW government had originally hoped.
While delays in their closure could be seen as good news for those families who wanted the centres to remain open, they and their supporters fear that so many resources have been lost from the institutions that the residents are now much worse off than before the closures were announced in late 2013.
Read more: Stockton centre to close, 2013 article
Port Stephens MP Kate Washington said it was impossible to get accurate information from the state government about the closure process, but her conversations with family members and staff left her fearful for the welfare of many of the residents.
Stockton, Kanangra and Tomago were originally scheduled to close midway through this year but the government confirmed in December that this target would not be met.
It has built a first batch of 11 group homes and it said in December that the first of the remaining 78 properties would “come on line towards the end of 2018”.
Read more: Delay to Stockton closure acknowledged
But Public Service Association organiser Paul James and others who have been involved in the closure process say the three centres are likely to remain open until at least 2020.
Stockton Welfare Association member Wendy Cuneo said that families had been told by senior staff that Stockton, Tomaree and Kanangra would stay open until all of the group homes were finished.
“But they haven’t turned a sod on the 78 houses they were supposed to have built by now,” Mrs Cuneo said. “I don’t think it’s going to close at all. I don’t think it will amount to anything. They have wrecked the whole place for nothing, really.”
Ms Washington said the government had “put up the shutters” on Stockton, Tomaree and Kanangra.
“What’s happening now is so awful, because they are turning Stockton into the place they claimed it was when they said it failed the United Nations criteria for disability care and used that to justify closing it,” Ms Washington said.
The Newcastle Herald asked the office of Disability Services Minister Ray Williams about the delays at Stockton, and about assertions that services there were worse than when the government announced the closure.
A spokesperson for the Family and Community Services agency said: “The Hunter residences redevelopment program is well under way. We have completed construction of the first 11 homes and 62 people have moved into their new accommodation. Routine maintenance is undertaken at the current Hunter residences as required.
“The NSW Government has purchased land for most of the remaining properties, at locations chosen by residents and their families, and completed designs for most of the remaining homes.”
The spokesperson said that moving residents from centres such as Stockton, Tomaree and Kanangra was a policy with more than 15 years of bipartisan support.
On the call centres, the NDIA confirmed that Serco Citizen Services Pty Ltd had won a two-year contract to operate NDIS call centres around the country.
Although the private-sector side of the NDIS has been dominated by not-for-profit agencies, it was set up to allow for-profit companies, such as Serco, to participate. The Herald first reported disability sector concerns about Serco in 2015, when the company advertised for a “subject matter expert” to advise it on “opportunities” within the NDIS.
Read more: Handing over ‘key assets’
Disability advocates, Labor and the Greens all criticised the Serco contract.
Hunter athlete Kurt Fearnley said on Twitter: “I’m late to this party . . . & definitely going to assume that Serco is currently racking their brains on how they can bring lived experience of disabilities into their workplace.
“The NDIS will be worthless if people with disabilities aren’t at its core!”