The Information Commissioner has ordered the Home Office to disclose confidential self-audit reports written by the companies that ran two controversial immigration detention centres. The decision follows a ten month freedom of information battle by Corporate Watch.
The Commissioner slammed the Home Office for a series of delays and said there is “a very strong public interest” in disclosure. He said the reports contain “detailed breakdowns and insight” into the performance of Serco and the Geo Group on their multi-million pound government contracts for operating the Colnbrook and Harmondsworth facilities. The Home Office has to hand over the documents by 13 July 2015 or risk contempt of court. The Home Office can still appeal the Commissioner’s decision.
Corporate Watch made a Freedom of Information request after Immigration Minister James Brokenshire told Parliament in 2014 that contractual performance at the centres was monitored through “monthly staffing and self-audit reports”. However, the Home Office said the documents were confidential and that disclosure could harm the “commercial interests” of Serco and the Geo Group. Government departments routinely conceal details of their contracts with outsourcing companies by invoking exemptions in the Freedom of Information act, sections 41 and 43, which protect “information provided in confidence” and “commercial interests”. Corporate Watch appealed to the Information Commissioner to review the Home Office’s use of these exemptions.
In a critical decision, the Commissioner found that even though releasing the documents is likely to damage the companies’ commercial interests, this is outweighed by the public interest in disclosure. The Commissioner said it is “highly relevant that the contractors are paid with public money” to run the detention centres and that disclosure will increase transparency about whether “a value for money service is being provided to the taxpayer”.
He also cited concerns in the media which suggested the operation of detention centres was a “problematic area generally”, as well as reports by the Prisons Inspector into Harmondsworth and Colnbrook that were “to varying degrees of severity, critical of their operation.” The Harmondsworth inspection found that there was an “inadequate focus on the needs of the most vulnerable detainees” and “shocking cases where a sense of humanity was lost”, referring to the deaths of two detainees. At the time of that inspection, Harmondsworth was run by the Geo Group, an American private prison giant.
The confidential audits were written almost a year after that inspection, in May 2014, and the Commissioner said “there is a strong public interest in favour of disclosure in order to reveal whether, according to the contractors’ own accounts, the operations of these IRCs [Immigration Removal Centres] improved.” The “vulnerable nature” of people held in the detention centres “made all of the factors in favour of disclosure … more acute”, he said. Over a hundred asylum seekers and other migrants at Harmondsworth reportedly went on hunger strike in May 2014, protesting against poor conditions and fast-track deportations.
In September 2014, Harmondsworth and Colnbrook were taken over by a different company, Mitie Care and Custody. Keith Vaz MP has claimed that Mitie took on the Colnbrook contract for 30% less than their predecessor Serco, raising concerns about pressure on staff. Secret filming released earlier this year by Corporate Watch showed that Harmondsworth continued to be dogged by problems in the months after Mitie took charge, with Home Office staff filmed admitting that conditions in Harmondsworth were “shit”.
Maurice Frankel, Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said “This is an important decision which shows that where private contractors providing public services are failing to meet the required standards, their performance may have to be disclosed in the public interest even if it could be harmful to their commercial interests or a breach of confidence. Contractors cannot expect to be able to conceal substandard performance.
In this case, fortunately, there was no doubt that the information was subject to the FOI Act, because the Home Office held it. But where information about performance is held solely by the contractor the FOI right of access may not apply. That substantial loophole needs to be addressed if we are to have proper scrutiny of contracted out services.”
You can download the Information Commissioner’s decision notice in full here
Read Corporate Watch’s tips on making Freedom of Information requests here