NSW Health spent $40 million on private security but didn’t check their credentials

Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 2023

NSW Health spent almost $40 million on private security at western Sydney hospitals without doing any background checks, prompting a scathing internal audit to warn that guards without training or credentials could have had access to patients and children.

A copy of the February audit, obtained by the Herald, reveals that between 2020 and October last year the Western Sydney Local Health District spent $39.6 million dollars paying for private security at Auburn and Blacktown hospitals, as well as two drug treatment centres.

The guards were used during COVID-19 as well as to “fill in gaps” in the hospitals’ full-time security staff.

But the audit found the local health district did not have “any processes” to check whether the guards were trained or even licensed to work as private security.
Instead, NSW Health left it up to the contracted private security company to ensure their guards had valid working with children checks and security licences. The audit warned lack of oversight had left the local health district open to “significant reputation and financial risks [if] untrained or uncertified security staff are let into the facility, near the patients, children and other visitors”.

In a statement, Western Sydney Local Health District said the safety of patients and staff was “an absolute priority” and that private contractors were used to “supplement the existing workforce during period of peak activity”.

“This was particularly the case during the COVID-19 pandemic,” a spokesperson said.

However, the documents obtained by the Herald show that spending on private security actually increased in some cases after the height of the COVID emergency. In 2020 the local health district paid $4.3 million dollars in private security fees, rising to almost $12 million between January and October 2022.

While the spokesperson insisted it had “extensive processes in place to check the credentials of all contracted security staff”, the audit found this was not the case. It stated there was also an “absence of formal training” for guards and “ad hoc” working practices, which meant there was sometimes no “formal onboarding”.

The audit found the local health district had not kept any records of any issues with guards, meaning that “poor or unacceptable” conduct by workers could see them being “withdrawn from one facility but allocated to another”.

While the Herald does not suggest private security without credentials have accessed hospitals, multiple sources said they were aware of complaints made against contractors. The Western Sydney Health spokesperson said that it “takes feedback and complaints seriously” and that concerns “are thoroughly investigated”.

Gerard Hayes, the secretary of the Health Services Union, whose members include in-house hospital security guards, said the use of private contract workers over full-time staff was a symptom of “lazy, tick-and-flick management”.
“The health security workforce are mindful of things like addiction issues, anxiety, mental health; it is a complex and difficult workplace and they work as part of a collegiate team with proper training,” he said.

“What happens is management decide to flick it out to these private companies and they show up to these enormous facilities and they don’t know the protocols, they don’t know what their role is.

“They could have been doing anything the night before. Working as a bouncer at a pub. But it’s just a ticking of the box to say there’s a body there we’ve done our job.”

The cost of the contractors was the type of largesse Hayes has urged the Minns government to focus on as part of a looming special commission of inquiry into health spending.

It comes after the Herald revealed the government was spending millions of dollars paying fees to third-party recruitment companies tasked with finding doctors to fill the worsening staff crisis in the state’s regional and rural hospitals.