The Immigration Health Advisory Group (IHAG) was established in 2006 but all of the group’s members except the current chair, Dr Paul Alexander, have now been sacked.
The ABC’s AM program understands the Government is now planning to set up its own advisory panel headed by Dr Alexander, an Australian Defence Force medical expert who IHAG members say has little mental health experience.
Mr Abbott says the Government will still receive advice on the mental and physical welfare of asylum seekers.
“This is a complete beat-up by the ABC and some of the Fairfax papers,” he told Radio National.
“There was a committee which was not very effectual.
“The chairman of the committee is now the departmental medical officer who is providing advice in a more sustained way.
“So we are still getting the advice; we’re getting the advice in a more sustained way from the chairman of the committee rather than needing to have a full committee to do it for us.”
Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles says the abolition of the IHAG is an extraordinary move, coming so soon after a damning report from Amnesty on the condition at the Manus Island detention centre.
“This is an inopportune time to disband the detention health advisory group at this moment because this is one of the mechanisms by which governments can ensure that appropriate standards are maintained,” he said.
But Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says the decision was made by the secretary of the Immigration Department.
“The secretary ensures that he has appropriate, professional advice to assist the department with their responsibilities in this important area,” he said in a statement.
“The ongoing role of the IHAG is a matter for the secretary of the department, who has my full confidence to determine such matters.
“The proper care and treatment of people within the detention network is of utmost importance to the Government and my department.”
Professor Louise Newman, a current member and former chair of IHAG, says she was blindsided by the news.
“The group was informed on Friday that it has actually been disbanded, which is of course an issue of grave concern to the medical and health professionals involved,” she said.
“We’re certainly concerned that there’s currently no formal independent process of reviewing or oversight of the situation within detention.”
‘Significant risk’ with current immigration situation
IHAG was formed in 2006 after recommendations made in the Palmer and Comrie Inquiries.
Those inquiries examined immigration detention and mental health services in the wake of botched handling of the cases of Vivian Alvarez and Cornelia Rau.
Professor Newman says the group consists of expert medical professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists and GPs, as well as advocates and officials.
“It’s extremely concerning when we have the major people within the health and mental health professions who are experts in this area, being in a sense advised that our advice is not perhaps necessary or needed,” she said.
“From our perspective, we are in a situation of significant risk in terms of health and mental health given the nature of current policy.”
Adjunct Associate Professor Amanda Gordon, the Australian Psychological Society’s representative to IHAG, says the Government appears to have been planning for some time to disband the group.
She says recent meetings have been cancelled and subgroups have already been abolished.
“We are very concerned that people’s mental health needs will be completely unattended to and no one will look after them,” she said.
“In fact they are being only cared for in terms of security and that they are individuals human beings who are going to be pawns to Government policy.”
New adviser ‘lacks mental health experience’
Associate Professor Gordon says she is concerned about the new arrangements the Government is putting in place.
She says Dr Alexander does not have enough experience in mental health to provide the Government with advice.
“I guess I’m concerned that Dr Alexander doesn’t have a background in mental health at all,” Associate Professor Gordon said.
Psychiatric problems, self-harm most common reasons for treatment: report
Meanwhile, a report has found health problems plaguing immigration detainees in Australia could be prevented by better primary care in detention centres.
Research in the Medical Journal of Australia reveals around half of the detainees living in Darwin in 2011 attended a hospital emergency department.
The report also found psychiatric problems and self-harm were the most common reasons people needed treatment.
The research authors say the findings show organisations should work with the IHAG to assess whether current services for detainees are up to scratch.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC News’ on 16 December 2013.