Centrelink Rallies Call for Immediate End to Auto-Debt Recovery Program
31 January 2017 at 2:34 pm
Lunchtime rallies across three states calling on the federal government to stop its Centrelink auto-debt recovery program have been followed online with a nationwide virtual rally.
Using hashtags #dignitynotdebt and #notmydebt on Facebook and Twitter, the online event has run simultaneously with the rallies taking place in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.
In a statement from welfare peak body ACOSS, CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said: “This error-riddled auto debt-recovery program must be stopped without further delay.
“The tweaks announced by the minister for human services, Alan Tudge, do not address the fundamental problems and serious concerns expressed by us and a broad range of stakeholders.”
Goldie said ACOSS met with Tudge and urged him to immediately halt Centrelink’s automated debt-recovery program, “which is operating as an aggressive abuse of government power, causing extensive stress, anxiety and harm amongst thousands of people caught up in the process”.
“We also repeated our call for the minister to convene a roundtable of key stakeholders and experts as soon as possible to design a humane and fair approach to debt recovery,” she said.
“Further disturbing allegations have been released detailing glaring mistakes generated by the automated system. ACOSS also calls for an independent investigation into these allegations.”
— VCOSS (@VCOSS) January 30, 2017
ACOSS called for:
- The immediate end of the automated data-matching program of debt detection and recovery, including existing debt recovery action that has arisen under this program. Planned automated debt-recovery programs for pensioners should also be halted.
- The convening of a roundtable of key stakeholders and experts in social security to design a fair and humane approach to debt recovery.
- An independent investigation into the auto-debt recovery program, including into allegations made by Centrelink staff about the problems with the program.
- Adequate resourcing of Centrelink and community legal assistance services helping people with social security issues. Staffing cuts at Centrelink must be reversed.
- Whistle-blower protections for Centrelink staff reporting poor administrative practices.
Goldie said the key issues with the auto-debt recovery program included:
- the reversal of the onus of proof onto people receiving payments
- failure to properly investigate the accuracy of automated data-matching
- continuing debt recovery action where debts are being challenged
- lack of human involvement in the detection and calculation of overpayments
- requirement for people to gather evidence of their income from up to six years ago
- automated debt recovery and deduction of amounts from people’s income support, without human intervention
- inability of people to make contact and speak with a Centrelink staff member.
“There must be human involvement in the detection and calculation of debts. Without this step, many people will be paying back debts they do not owe, or paying a debt higher than what they owe,” Goldie said.
“The minister must listen to the individuals affected, the broader community and a wide range of stakeholders; and end the automated debt recovery program to prevent further harm.”
Those watching the rallies via the Dignity Not Debt Facebook and Twitter feeds were urged to take a selfie holding their Centrelink debt letter or a short statement of support, then post it to social media with the hashtags.
“The Turnbull government is using a faulty data matching system to issue false Centrelink debts to hundreds of thousand of our citizens,” the Facebook page said.
“Anyone who has ever received money from the government through a social security payment, or knows and loves someone who has, is affected — this includes Parenting Payments, Newstart, Student Allowance, Disability Pension, Age Pension, and the Family Tax Benefit.”
— Nugget ‘Hara (@nugzy) January 31, 2017
Other speakers at the rally included Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale, president of the National Union Of Students, Sophie Johnstone, and Zach Brady from Centrelink Class Action.
Also on Tuesday, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert released details of a government response to a parliamentary question about what data it collected on the proportion of overpayments raised as a result of system or administrative errors.
The government responded that: “It does not capture the proportion of overpayments raised as a result of system or administrative errors.”
Siewert said: “It is outrageous that the Centrelink and the Department of Human Services does not keep track of its mistakes and that those relying on Centrelink are paying the price for their mistakes.
“The government must immediately work to establish how many people accessing the social safety net received an overpayment because of an administrative error.
“For the government to not collate that information is deeply concerning. It means there is no attempt to collect data and analyse how many vulnerable people are stuck with debts they were not responsible creating.”