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Balancing safety and service: Securing government service centres

NZ Security, April 2017

New ID checks at WINZ offices have drawn criticism from unions, but MSD stands firm. It’s one of many changes the ministry has implemented since the 2014 Ashburton tragedy aimed at making the staff and clients of its service centres safer.

 

According to mid-February media reports, Armourguard Security stood down a security guard from a WINZ site after he had complained to his union that the company was not taking the health and safety of guards seriously.

Dave Toopi, a Unite union delegate, complained to his union that new ID checking procedures at WINZ offices put the guards at risk because they were now having to act as receptionists as well as guards.

“Guards are expected to stop all clients, check if they have ID, check if they have an appointment and the time of the appointment,” stated a Unite media release. “They are holding a folder with sheets of names and appointment times. This creates holdups during busy periods.”

According to the union, guards are in a vulnerable position when doing the paperwork and not in a position to react quickly, and that this additional role can create unnecessary tension between them and clients.

Asked by NZ Security whether it could confirm whether Armourguard had stood down a security guard from one of its WINZ sites, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) stated that it would not comment on any employment relations issue between Armourguard and their staff.

According to the MSD website, the new security measures are in place to make their offices safer. “Our security guards will have a quick chat with people before they come into our offices,” states the site. “It's an opportunity to check why the person is coming to see us and help to make sure we don't let someone in who might be a risk to the safety of our clients or our staff.”

Although there has been some criticism of the new ID checking procedures, the ministry, however, is standing firm on the issue. “It’s an important part of our security that we know who is coming into our sites,” MSD Deputy Chief Executive Service Delivery, Ruth Bound, told NZ Security.

“People will be asked for ID – any form of ID. But we know not everyone carries this at all times so I can reassure people that not having ID won’t mean people can’t come into a Work and Income office,” she stressed. “If guards are satisfied someone has a genuine reason for visiting, the lack of ID will not be a barrier to them coming into our offices.”

According to Ms Bound, many security guards were already having these conversations with clients – “the change is simply making sure we have a consistent approach across the country and we've been progressively rolling this out since 16 January.”

“As part of this we have been working very closely with Armourguard to make sure their staff understand the new guidelines and get up-skilled. This includes ensuring our contracted security personnel are fully aware of their obligations under the Privacy Act, including using any private information provided strictly for the purposes for which it is required.

According to Ms Bound, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner is aware of the process and is satisfied it meets the requirements of the Privacy Act. For its part, the MSD is closely monitoring the changes.

 

Service centre security challenges

Asked more generally about the major challenges of securing government service centres, Ms Bound stated that safety of staff and clients is the absolute priority – “no one should come into a Work and Income office and feel threatened or scared.”

“Every week we see 38,000 clients face to face and take 144,000 calls. In the vast majority of cases, we’re able to see and help people without any issues,” she said. But it is the nature of WINZ’s portfolio that some cases are trickier than others.

“As part of our day-to-day work, we do deal with people who are vulnerable, who are frustrated, with issues ranging from mental health to family breakdowns and job loss. It can be tense and we know it’s not easy to ask for help. We’ll always do our best to help people who need it. Treating people with respect and understanding is absolutely key for us to be able to do our job.

“But we need to make it clear that threatening behaviour is not okay. With real people behind every threat and security incident recorded, it has real impact beyond the numbers on paper.”

 

Post-Ashburton developments

Safety of service centre staff and clients has been top-of-agenda at MSD since the 2014 Ashburton WINZ shootings, and a raft of measures have been undertaken to secure against the recurrence of such an event.

In the days immediately following the Ashburton tragedy, said Ms Bound, the Ministry contracted additional security guards for each site and adopted a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ towards abusive and threatening behavior. The ministry also commissioned Deloittes to complete an independent security review.

“The independent security review was undertaken in two phases,” she explained. The first phase focused on reviewing the physical environment in MSD’s public facing service sites, this was released on 26 September 2014. The second phase took a broader look at security at the Ministry, and was released on 10 February 2015.

A Security Response Programme was established to consider the findings of the review and implement changes across the ministry.

Following a WorkSafe investigation into the tragedy, the ministry was charged under Section 6 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.  “The Ministry filed a guilty plea, to help bring some closure for everyone impacted,” said Ms Bound, “especially those in Ashburton.”

In April 2016, the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 2015 came into force, creating stronger obligations on employers. “While many of our health, safety and security processes remained current under the new Act,” she said, “we have provided comprehensive training to staff on proactively identifying and managing risks and strengthened our duty of care with our contractors and suppliers.”

According to Ms Bound, further health, safety and security changes have been introduced by the Security Response Programme, as a result of the WorkSafe prosecution and the introduction of the HSWA, and as the needs of MSD’s business change.

Evergreen International NZ won the $80 million contract in 2014 to supply security services to MSD, just six months after the private equity-owned firm acquired the Tyco-owned Armourguard Security business in New Zealand for $1. At that time, the ministry employed around 162 guards at 144 WINZ sites.

The national two-year plus two-year contract covers the provision of security guards, monitoring of security and fire alarms in ministry offices and Child Youth and Family homes, and support for monitoring systems.

It also requires security guards to be dispatched with CYF employees in family homes, transition sites and in transit and to help in delivering "trespass notices and warning letters to clients". Guards also sit in on some family group conferences. Monitoring services include bedroom, intruder detection and fire alarm systems in dozens of CYF family and supervised group homes.

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