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How to fix a broken Centrelink and its disastrous attempt to automate debt collection.

By Senator Rachel Siewert
Friday, February 24, 2017

Whilst many of us were buying Christmas presents and settling down for a well-earned rest in December, the Government rolled out its automated debt recovery system for people that had used the social safety net in the last six years. Quite quickly, a period that is supposed to be a relaxing and family time was filled with fear and dread as people across the country were informed that they owed a debt to Centrelink for supposedly misreporting earnings when they were accessing payments like Newstart, Youth Allowance, and the Disability Support Pension.

 Removing human oversight from debt recovery has meant monumental errors across the board that has thrown the system into further disarray; many people who are not actually owing a debt have been misinformed and must prove their innocence, trailing back through records from years gone by that they may not have readily available (or access to at all for various reasons). 

 These demands from Centrelink are deeply distressing and my office has heard from many people about their experiences of receiving a notification that they were thousands of dollars in debt and would need records from many years ago to dispute this. We had someone email us explaining that they had to provide payslips from 2011 because of an alleged owed debt. After spending a long time trying to get through on the phone, this person explained that tax records were over a whole year, whereas he had only worked and claimed student allowance for different parts of that financial year. This person still had to provide payslips, and despite doing this was sent a letter saying that they were still owing a debt of over $1500; he then appealed it, by resubmitting his payslips unchanged, and the debt was lifted. It shouldn’t have got to that stage.

Just before Christmas I wrote to the Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge asking for him to explain the debacle and suspend the program. Since then it has become clear that the program has caused too many issues to remain viable, subsequently we have repeatedly called for the automated debt recovery system to be scrapped altogether, and for the program to be investigated through a senate inquiry when Parliament resumes.

 Using an automated system when trying to claw money back from people who were accessing support was bound to be flawed, particularly when the infrastructure for people challenging the debts is so broken.

 The Ombudsman will be reviewing this debacle but it is clear that the Parliament needs to hear from the people affected by this flawed approach. That is why I will work with Senate colleagues to initiate a senate inquiry into the debacle, with a strong and broad Terms of Reference. We need clear answers on how this program went so wrong and what the real impacts have been.

 Early this month, in an interview (that I can only describe as not reflecting reality), Minister Tudge refused to suspend or scrap the automated debt recovery system, insisting that the program was working just fine.

 I have to ask, has the Minister no comprehension of how broken Centrelink is or is he choosing to ignore it? For him to defend wait times by referring to the average wait time of 12 minutes to get through to Centrelink on the phone is farcical. Thousands of people wait hours and hours to get through; the number of calls to Centrelink that hit a busy signal ballooned out to nearly 29 million for 2015-16, up from 22 million the previous year. He says to just go in to a local branch if you can’t get through – what if you’re rural or remote? What if you do go to the office and get told to call up, which we know is occurring.

Centrelink has been broken for a long time and instead of fixing it the Government implemented the automated debt recovery system which put further pressure on this broken system.

 If the Minister truly listened he would realise why the automated debt recovery system needs to be abandoned.

 I will continue to pursue this issue well into 2017 through a senate inquiry, other parliamentary levers, and by talking to my constituents about the impacts of a broken Centrelink system and what that can mean for vulnerable Australians. Already we have heard hundreds of accounts from people who have reached out to my office via Facebook, email, or phone. If you have a story you would like to share please feel free to email me at senator.siewert@aph.gov.au

read more on rachel Siewerts website

Photo: Rachel at Centrelink rally. Georgia Blackburn