Labor Calls for Senate Inquiry Into Centrelink Robo-Debt ‘Debacle’ as Pensioners Targeted
18 January 2017 at 3:18 pm
Labor will push for a Senate inquiry into the Centrelink robo-debt “debacle” when Parliament returns in February after revelations that the automated system will start targeting age and disability support pensioners.
The scheme, which seeks to recover $4 billion in budget savings, has already sent 170,000 notices of potential overpayment since July, with widespread complaints from people allegedly having received incorrect notifications.
On Tuesday it was reported that the system, which matches Centrelink and Australian Taxation Office data, would be extended to cover 2.5 million aged pensioners and 800,000 disability support pensioners.
In calling for a Senate inquiry on Wednesday, the shadow minister for human services, Linda Burney, accused the government of being “out of touch” with the public.
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, after initially dismissing complaints about the system, this week said several modifications would be made to the letters.
But Burney said the government was largely ignoring problems with the “error-prone” system.
“Alan Tudge cannot be allowed to keep claiming that the system is working. We need an inquiry to establish just how the government got this so wrong,” Burney said.
“Electorate offices across the country have been inundated, people deserve answers from the government. If the prime minister won’t hold his ministers to account, then the Parliament will.
“The government is totally out of touch – they don’t understand just how angry the community is and how concerned they are that this program is going to be targeting people with disability and age pensioners.”
Labor said the Senate inquiry would focus on the extent of issues experienced by users, the adequacy of testing a modelling of the system before its rollout and the capacity of the Centrelink system to meet increased demand.
The Greens have also called for a Senate inquiry.
“Clearly 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,” Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said.
“When Parliament resumes I will work with Senate colleagues to initiate a senate inquiry into the debacle. We need clear answers on how this program went so wrong and what the real implications are.”
The Commonwealth Ombudsman has already launched an independent investigation into the scheme.
Labor also put in a request to investigate complaints about the debt-recovery system, which was rejected on Wednesday by the Australian National Audit Office.
The auditor general said the decision was made to prevent duplication with the current investigation.
A spokesperson for Labor told Pro Bono News that at the time the party put in a request with the auditor general the terms of reference for the Ombudsman’s investigation weren’t available.
The spokesperson said the terms were broader than first thought.
The auditor general also said they would consider Labor’s investigation request in the 2017/18 Audit Work Program.
On Wednesday Anglicare joined calls from welfare organisations to suspend the system.
Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers said, given the revelations that problems were clear before the rollout of the scheme, there was a “failure to take the impact of these processes seriously”.
“Mistakes will be made in all complex systems, however it reflects particularly poorly on government Ministers who reject out of hand evidence of the inaccuracy of this clumsy process and the distress it has caused,” Chambers said.
She called for the government to sit down with the people most affected to put a more respectful process in place.
“It doesn’t need to be like this. [There are] a number of government projects under way that are collaborations with the community services sector,” she said.
“We believe it is possible to develop more effective ways for DHS to ensure underpayments and overpayments are picked up and corrected without surprising, confusing or unnecessarily inconveniencing people.
“Anglicare Australia members work with one in 26 Australians, many of whom rely to varying degrees on income from Centrelink. We would welcome the opportunity to bring their experience and sit around the table with other advocates for those people most affected by this initiative, relevant ministers, officers of the department and technical experts.
“In good spirit, it should not be too hard to find a better way.”