Queensland to change laws that prevented UN inspectors entering mental health wards

Annastacia Palaszczuk says the restrictions will be removed this year to comply with Opcat treaty

Queensland will introduce legislation that would allow United Nations officials to visit its mental health wards in a move that could leave New South Wales as the only Australian jurisdiction to refuse entry to inspectors.

A UN anti-torture subcommittee suspended its tour of Australian detention facilities after Guardian Australia revealed Queensland refused access to some mental health facilities that hold people charged with crimes, while NSW blocked inspectors from entering all of its detention facilities.

The delegation’s head, Aisha Shujune Muhammad, condemned both states for restricting access to UN officials.

“It is deeply regrettable that the limited understanding of the [subcommittee on prevention of torture’s] mandate and the lack of cooperation stemming from internal disagreements, especially with respect to the states of Queensland and NSW, has compelled us to take this drastic measure,” he said.

States have known for five years that the inspections would occur and some had changed laws to provide for access.

Questioned about the visits by Greens MP Michael Berkman in parliament on Wednesday, the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said she had been advised that UN officials faced some legislative “barriers” that “restricted access” to some mental health, forensic and disability wards.

Palaszczuk said a bill would be progressed to amend those restrictions by the end of the year, allowing the state to fulfil its obligations under the optional protocol to the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Opcat).

Berkman has questioned why the government would only move these amendments five years after Australia ratified Opcat and after the inspectors had suspended their visit.

“This looks like either gross incompetence or deliberate obstruction,” Berkman told Guardian Australia.

“Based on what we’ve heard from advocacy groups, I dread to think what the government might be hiding as they duck and weave these inspections.”

The chief executive of the Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion (QAI), Matilda Alexander, said a human rights compliant framework for the inspection of the state’s forensic, disability and mental health wards was “long overdue”.

“For over a decade, QAI has called for laws to fully implement Opcat in Queensland, ensuring protections against torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” she said.

“Last week’s disastrous UN visit shows the importance of realising this protection. It is past time for human rights to be fully protected, including in all closed settings in Queensland.”

A spokesperson for Queensland’s attorney general, Shannon Fentiman, said the bill will address “current legislative barriers that restrict physical access to facilities in Queensland”.

The government had passed the inspector of detention services bill in August, which was “the first stage in implementing Queensland’s commitments under Opcat”, the spokesperson said.

“This legislation establishes an independent inspector of detention … designed to encompass key features as outlined in Opcat including unrestricted access to places of detention, persons and information and the ability to make public reports and recommendations.”

The spokesperson said while the department is currently unable to permit the UNSPT to physically enter inpatient units, it offered the UNSPT to communicate with patients remotely “with the patient’s consent.”

Guardian Australia has seen a letter, sent to the UN ahead of the visit, from the health minister, Yvette D’Ath, which says the department will provide the subcommittee with “access to documents about the operation and conditions of [authorised mental health services]”.

The letter said departmental staff “may work with the UNSPT to identify patients who may wish to be interviewed” but this communication may be limited if it’s “likely to be detrimental to the health or wellbeing of the person or others”.

“The department is committed to supporting the UNSPT visit … however in addition to the legislative constraints outlined above, certain practical considerations may also limit the ability of authorised mental health services to fully engage with the UNSPT,” the letter says.


Eden Gillespie

The GuardianTramp

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