Disability Sector Joins Calls for a Halt to Centrelink ‘Fiasco’
6 January 2017 at 1:28 pm
The disability sector has backed calls for the Centrelink debt recovery “fiasco” to be suspended immediately amid concerns about the impact it is having on people with disability.
The Disabled People’s Organisations Australia, a collection of disability support and advocacy groups, has raised concerns the current debt recovery process, that uses automated data matching, is particularly unfair for people with disability.
It comes after Centrelink has come under fire for using data from the Australian Tax Office to check records about people’s income, without staff involvement or oversight.
Hundreds of complaints have come to light in the last month with people alleging they have received debt notifications, sometimes going back six years and have had a limited time to respond.
DPO Australia spokesperson and People with Disability Australia co-CEO Matthew Bowden said people with disability were being made more vulnerable by how these policies were implemented.
“Many people with disability rely on social security payments to make ends meet. For those that work in casual or contract work, this new system appears to be particularly problematic,” Bowden said.
“The majority of people with disability being reviewed will have been entitled to social security payments and have done nothing wrong.
“Cutting social security payments to recover debts in this way could leave people with disability substantially worse off, and we already know that almost half of all people with disability live in poverty.
“People with disability are being made more vulnerable by how these policies are implemented.”
Bowden said “springing this kind of change” on people just before Christmas, with no additional resources to assist them was unacceptable.
“People with disability may need more time and support to understand the information and respond, may need the information in different, accessible formats and should have increased advocacy available to engage with the Centrelink system and manage such a stressful situation,” he said.
“DPO Australia is calling for the federal government to immediately suspend this automated debt recovery system and start to sort out the mess that has been created.”
Their bid joins a growing number of groups calling for the system’s suspension, including the Labor, the Greens, independent Andrew Wilkie and senator Nick Xenophon.
Speaking in the lead up to Christmas, Wilkie said his office had been inundated with calls and emails from around the country telling stories of how people have been deemed “guilty until proven innocent” and sent to the debt collectors immediately.
“Many of these debts have been found to be incorrect,” Wilkie said.
“I’ve now heard stories of debts as high as $10,000 or more although the many stories I’ve heard of much smaller debts are equally significant for people on very low incomes.
“People are terrified about how they will put food on the table or provide Christmas for their kids. My office has spoken to people who are distraught because they have received a threatening letter warning of an enormous debt. Several people have even gone so far as to speak of suicide.”
However Social Services Minister Christian Porter has defended Centrelink’s system.
“There have been 169,000 completed reviews, and they are initiated by a letter, there is a follow up letter and then after that a third and final letter. Of those 169,000 completed reviews, there has been a complaint rate as low as 0.16 per cent – so 276 complaints,” Porter said.
“This is a three-stage system. A letter, a very, I think, polite and fairly well-drafted letter is sent out. It notes to the individual concerns that the information that they provided from Centrelink is different from the information that was provided to the ATO for the same period of time.
“We simply say that there’s a 21-odd day period which they can go online and correct the information that we have if it’s incorrect, or accept the information that we have if it is correct.
So they simply go online and update their details.”
Porter said the system had a very solid success in recouping monies owed to the taxpayer.
“There has been overwhelming success in terms of the new debt recovery system. Monies are being identified and being paid back to the taxpayer – indeed, $300 million so far, with a tiny complaint rate, and only in a very rare and few instances, indeed 2.2 per cent, has there even been the requirement for documentary evidence to be provided,” he said.
“So we’re very, very pleased with the results, and I would have thought all Australian taxpayers would be pleased with that kind of result.”
On Friday Labor called on the Australian National Audit Office to conduct an independent performance review into the “disastrous, error prone Centrelink data matching program”.
Linda Burney, shadow minister for human services, said the automated data matching system had caught “thousands of honest Australian’s in its net”.
She said the Turnbull government’s view that the program was the “only fair way to run the system” was at odds with hundreds of stories submitted to the community-run Not My Debt website.
“The acting minister says they’ve saved $300 million but senior public servants contradict him – it is time for an independent audit,” Burney said.
“If the government truly believes the program is working they will support an independent audit.
“So far from the government we’ve had silence, then the acting minister throwing a tantrum, followed by bureaucrats being forced to defend the system they know is failing – what we need is action and clarity on the scale of this mess.
“For months we’ve been hearing horror stories about the consequences of Minister Tudge’s bungled program, I want to get the facts straight and the system to be suspended until it can be fixed.”