in the back
You couldn’t make it up (but Serco did)
Cell death, Issue 1419
PREVENTABLE TRAGEDY: Sivaraj Tharmalingam, whose death at Thames magistrates’ court last year exposes serious gaps in the oversight of private contractors like Serco
A CORONER has forced service giant Serco to implement swift reforms after it admitted that its computerised cell records at a busy London magistrates’ court were “a work of fiction”.

The admission came at the inquest into the death of Sivaraj Tharmalingam, who died from an alcohol-related seizure while being held at Thames magistrates’ court in Bow, east London, a year ago. Jurors found a series of failures by Serco had contributed to his death.

They had heard that Mr Tharmalingam, 50, was known to have epilepsy, which had left him with brain damage. He was also heavily intoxicated when detained, and Serco staff should have checked him every five minutes. In the hour before his death, he was monitored only once before being found unconscious.

Fabricated records
Records appearing to show that named staff had made regular observations had been fabricated. The computer operator told the inquest at St Pancras coroner’s court that she had been trained to record the checks as having been made on time and to “guess” which jailer might have done them. The jury also heard that Serco had no procedure governing what to do if a detainee was found unresponsive, and that there had been a delay in summoning medical help.

North London coroner Mary Hassell issued a Regulation 28 warning, demanding reforms to avoid another preventable death. She said staff had painted a “very confused picture” of who was responsible for what, particularly when it came to the care of at-risk prisoners. Last week Serco responded with a seven-page outline of root-and-branch changes to the way it cares for prisoners in its custody – not just in London.

Dodgy data
Serco, as Eye readers well know, is no stranger to dodgy data. It was forced to give up its tagging contract and repay the government £68.5m after being caught charging for some offenders who were back in prison or dead. Similarly, it had to repay profits on its prison escort services when anomalies were discovered in recorded prisoner movements.

But Serco was not the only one to be criticised in the case of Mr Tharmalingam. The jury also found failures by the doctor who had decided the previous night at Forest Gate police station that Mr Tharmalingam was fit to be detained. Dr Paschal Forkuo, who has since referred himself to the General Medical Council over the issue, had spent just one minute with the prisoner and not bothered to check his medication.

Selen Cavcav, from Inquest, the campaigning charity, said the case exposes a serious gap in the oversight and accountability of private contractors. Unlike deaths in police or prison custody, which will be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission or the Prisons Ombudsman, private contractors are not subject to any independent investigation.

More top stories in the latest issue:

The anti-corruption summit in London generated much hot air but little in the way of concrete measures to thwart the world’s money launderers.

Hundreds of people blacklisted from work are denied their day in court as the construction industry belatedly coughs up £75m to settle their claims.

The GMC is slammed for a ‘deeply flawed’ decision to strike off an expert neuropathologist whose court evidence disputes ‘shaken baby syndrome’.

UCL threatens international students taking part in a rent strike with moves that could put their studies – and their visas – in jeopardy.

Having boasted of its Chinese teaching credentials just last year, Ulster uni shuts its modern languages department, including popular Chinese courses.

Despite a £1.5m Arts Council grant, the public Whitechapel art gallery has taken serious money from a Gulf emirate to display modern Arabic art.

Trebles all round at Macquarie Group as it sells its stake in Thames Water, having siphoned off billions in ‘management fees’ and dividends.

How Liberia in West Africa became home to thousands of mystery shell companies, some of which own some of the UK most expensive property.

Hurrah! Five years after being ‘crudely framed’ and wrongly sacked, whistleblowing care home matron Vasanta Suddock finally clears her name.

To read all these stories in full, get the latest edition of Private Eye - you can subscribe here and have the magazine delivered to your home every fortnight.

Next issue on sale: 7th June 2016.
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Private Eye Issue 1418