High Number of Submissions to Centrelink Debt-Recovery Senate Inquiry ‘Confidential’
6 April 2017 at 3:30 pm
More than 100 submissions have been made to a Senate inquiry into the federal government’s controversial Centrelink debt-recovery program – with less than half being available for public viewing.
The Senate inquiry, which was set up in February 2017, is looking into the design, scope, cost-benefit analysis, contracts and implementation processes associated with the government’s Better Management of the Social Welfare System initiative.
The Senate Community Affairs Committee has extended the submission period for the inquiry until 19 April 2017.
Inquiry chair, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said: “Submissions to the inquiry so far show that people have found the government’s automated debt recovery system distressing and frightening.
“A lot of the submissions are either confidential or have their name withheld, which I think demonstrates that people feel intimidated about speaking out.
“I am glad that people are still submitting so we can hear personal experiences to help understand the impact of this process. Evidence given at the hearings will deepen that understanding.
“The government continues to think by and large there is nothing wrong with their approach, that certainly isn’t what I’m hearing and seeing.”
“We are greatly concerned by the continuation of the automated debt collection program or Online
Compliance Intervention (OCI). The program is one of the most significant failures in government administration in recent history and has caused extensive distress and human suffering,” the ACOSS submission said.
“There must be an independent review of all alleged debts raised by the OCI that are under repayment or have been repaid to assess whether they are owed and, if so, whether they are accurate. This should include review of the 10 per cent recovery fee.
“The department must automatically stop recovery of a debt where it is under reassessment, review or appeal… [and] it must not apply the 10 per cent recovery fee and must refund it to people who have already paid it.”
The National Social Security Rights Network (NSSRN), in its detailed 17 page submission, called on the Senate committee to recommend that the OCI system also be abandoned.
The NSSRN pointed, in particular, to the increased and unusual use of “averaging” the income of welfare recipients.
“If the person does not supply information because they do not respond at all or do not use the optional function in the online platform, the OCI system averages the total income across the period of employment recorded by the ATO. As a result, ‘averaging’ is not a last resort in the OCI system. It is much more prevalent and, as a result, there are more incorrect debt assessments,” the NSSRN submission said.
“The legality of the use of averaging by the OCI system is complex. However, any concern about the legality of administrative decision-making is serious and the committee should ask DHS to justify the legality of the increased prevalence of averaging under the OCI process.
“If the OCI system is not abandoned, it should at least be suspended until necessary improvements are identified and made in consultation with stakeholders, including people affected by the system and community organisations.”
However a submission from the Department of Human Services said averaging only occurred when a welfare recipient either allowed it to happen or failed to respond to correspondence.
“It is incorrect to imply that the department always averages, or that the system always averages over the full year. Averaging of income is applied when people do not contact the department with their information,” the department said.
A submission from disability peak body, People With Disability said the auto-debt recovery program had undermined the proper functioning of the social security system safety net, while “simultaneously destroying public confidence in the government’s ability to protect vulnerable people”.
“This robo-debt system must be immediately stopped, and an appropriate, measured, and well-planned approach to social security debt recovery implemented,” PWD’s submission said.
“We strongly urge the committee to recommend that the process be put on hold until the minister for human services and the department have undertaken comprehensive consultation and review processes, including with people affected by the initiative, to ensure that appropriate safeguards are put in place before moving forward.
“Many people with disability… [have] been issued with complicated and unclear debt notifications, and were distraught, overwhelmed and confused about what they had to do in response to the letters and SMS they had received. In some cases, the first, and only time, people were contacted was by debt collectors. Those who were able to access the MyGov website still weren’t able to understand what needed to be done to address the potential debt.
“To make matters worse, no guidance was given in the correspondence from Centrelink to direct people to where they could access support to navigate this complicated situation. Given that Centrelink staff members were not available to provide advice around the debt collection process, people were in many cases confused and desperate for support.”
Public hearings will continue in various states during April and May.