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Senate Calls for Robo-Debt Program to be Put on Hold

22 June 2017 at 8:38 am
Wendy Williams
Centrelink’s controversial robo-debt program should be put on hold and drastically overhauled, according to a Senate Committee report.

Wendy Williams | 22 June 2017 at 8:38 am


Senate Calls for Robo-Debt Program to be Put on Hold
22 June 2017 at 8:38 am

Centrelink’s controversial robo-debt program should be put on hold and drastically overhauled, according to a Senate Committee report.

The report by the Community Affairs References Committee, tabled on Wednesday, made 21 recommendations on how to fix the program that has been rolled out since mid-2016.

It called for the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (robo-debt) program to be halted until the “procedural fairness flaws in the program” were addressed.

The committee also recommended the government should re-assess all debts determined through the use of income averaging and a redesigned system should include a robust risk assessment process.

Australian Greens Senator and Community Affairs References Committee chair Rachel Siewert said there was compelling and consistent evidence against the scheme.

“All over the country thousands of Australians who have accessed the social safety net in the last six years have been put through the traumatic experience of having to prove a debt that may not even exist,” Siewert said.

“The evidence presented to the committee as it travelled across the country was compelling, consistent, and showed a program that was putting huge pressure on some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

“Procedural fairness is lacking in every stage of the robo-debt program; whether it be the forcing of people to reach back through their paperwork from six years ago, sending debt letters to the wrong address and/or not engaging with concerned recipients, or averaging out of income data, often producing incorrect results. The program must be put on hold until this systemic overarching problem is fixed.”

The four-months long Senate inquiry, which attracted 155 submissions, 87 of which were submitted confidentially, was initiated earlier this year following a large number of complaints about the robo-debt scheme.

The committee also helped nine public hearings, which with the submissions, formed the basis for the 21 recommendations which also addressed the program’s problem with calculating debt and where the onus lies, effective communication, applying additional fees, obstacles in recipients challenging debts, and coercive tactics being used to retrieve debts.

Siewert said the government needed to commit to debt consumer law legislation and guidelines, including in cases where they use external debt collectors.

“We heard time and time again of distressing tactics used by Centrelink and private debt collectors (who are on commission) in attempts to rake back potentially false debts. It seems in certain instances, getting the money back came above all else and was at the expense of the recipient’s mental wellbeing and financial stability,” she said.

“The committee has also recommended that guidelines are developed to consider appropriate levels of debt repayment to income ratios. Someone should not be more negatively impacted by a debt because they are on a low income.

“The government should cease releasing the personal details of income support recipients and must update its privacy policy to ensure this.”

The committee also called for the department to resume full responsibility for calculating the debts, and said they should be based on fortnightly earnings, not an assumed average.

“Unless this is rectified, there will continue to be problems,” Siewert said.

“Enough people have been hurt by this program which was designed to get money back quickly regardless of the impacts and whether it is legitimate debt. Urgent action needs to be taken by the government before more harm is done”.

Speaking ahead of the release of the Senate inquiry report ACOSS said the robo-debt program had been “a devastating abuse of government power”.

“Since its adoption 12 months ago, robo-debt has issued thousands of debt notices in error to parents, people with disabilities, carers and those seeking paid work, resulting in people slapped with Centrelink debts they do not owe or debts higher than what they owe,” ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said.

“It has been a devastating abuse of government power that has caused extensive harm, particularly among people who are the most vulnerable in our community.”

Goldie the government must consider the Senate Inquiry report carefully and “not extend the program as planned to hundreds of thousands of others, with 760,000 people expected to be affected in total”.

“Frankly, robo-debt must be abolished,” Goldie said.

“The fundamental flaw of robo-debt is the lack of human involvement in the detection and calculation of debts.

“We urge the federal government to finally sit down with stakeholders, including those representing people affected, to redesign Centrelink debt collection so that humans are involved and there is a fair, accurate and humane process undertaken.

“People needing help should be treated with dignity, not harassed into submission by automation.”

Anglicare Australia also backed calls for the process to be suspended.

Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers, said ahead of the release of the report that the system had no human oversight.

“It puts the onus back on ordinary people to correct robotised errors,” Chambers said .

“We’ve seen government ministers reject out of hand the impact of this clumsy process and the distress it has caused. That’s not good enough.

“The inquiry has heard plenty of evidence that the goal of this system is simply to maximise revenue. And while everyone agrees that we should stop overpayments, it beggars belief that we could keep using a system that saddled people with almost $3.5 million in false debt.

“We must suspend this program immediately – and stop its scheduled expansion to disability and aged pensioners.”

Chambers also said the robo debt fiasco was the “latest in a series of moves” aimed at targeting people in need of income support.

“The shift in the onus of proof onto recipients, the barriers to people trying to fix these problems through the Centrelink system, and the growing stigmatisation of welfare, is a step towards the criminalisation of poverty and disadvantage,” she said.

“Let’s suspend this failing system and work together to design one that works for people – not just the government.”

The St Vincent de Paul Society CEO Dr John Falzon said the program was having “disastrous effects on people’s lives”.

“This fundamentally flawed and error-prone debt program has shattered lives, eroded trust in government services, and revealed a government that is intent on bullying people on low incomes,” Falzon said.

“Robo-debt has been a monumental failure and must be halted immediately.

“Centrelink should exist to support people who need help, not to persecute them.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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One comment

  • Gavin R. Putland says:


    Centrelink is an agency of the executive government. According to s.61 of the Constitution, “The executive power of the Commonwealth… extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.” It does NOT extend to actions calculated to induce breaches of those laws.

    Many of Centrelink’s recent actions seem to fall into the latter category: sending out “initial clarification letters” designed to trick people into confirming income statements with missing date ranges and double-counted employers, then sending out debt letters based on assumed dates that are almost certainly wrong, then making it easier for victims to pay bogus debts than to dispute them, intimidating victims with Federal Police logos, handing victims over to debt collectors in order to alienate responsibility, forbidding staff to fix obvious errors unless the victim points them out, and doing all this to people who lack the intellectual and emotional resources to defend themselves.

    And if Centrelink’s duty to apply the law is not breached by requiring customers to prove that they don’t owe money, it is certainly breached by failing to look at evidence that the customers have already provided.

    All this surely leaves Centrelink open to a broad cease-and-desist order. If you’re a victim, threatening to seek such an order could be an effective means of forcing Centrelink not only to back down, but also to compensate you for wasting your time.

    IANAL, TINLA, etc.

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