Government Rejects Findings From Centrelink Robo-Debt Inquiry
12 October 2017 at 8:27 am
The federal government’s response to the Centrelink robo-debt inquiry has come under fire, after the government rejected the recommendations and said many of the statements the committee used as evidence were not accurate.
A Community Affairs References Committee released a report in June into Centrelink’s controversial robo-debt program, making 21 recommendations to fix the program that was rolled out in mid-2016.
The report said the system was “so flawed it was setup to fail” and contained a number of “procedural fairness flaws”.
The Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (robo-debt) program uses government records – matching and averaging a person’s income records held by Centrelink and the Tax Office – to detect overpayments.
But the government admitted in September that it sent recovery notices to 20,000 welfare recipients who were later found to owe less money, and in some cases, none at all.
Despite this, the government rejected the committee’s recommendation that the system should be put on hold.
In a response issued on Tuesday, the government said it was committed “to maintaining a strong social welfare safety net”.
“This requires that there be integrity in the welfare system. Each person should receive exactly what they are entitled to, no more and no less. This principle has been in place under successive governments and has not changed,” the government said.
“The government along with the Commonwealth Ombudsman acknowledge that communication issues with the initial roll out of the online system gave rise to potential confusion on the part of some recipients [but] several changes have subsequently been made to improve the initial contact letters and messages within the online system.”
The government also said that the “input from some third parties [during the inquiry] was aimed solely at scoring political points”.
“The government notes that a significant proportion of the statements relied upon as evidence in the chair’s report are not accurate. Many of the conclusions drawn in the chair’s report fail to take account of the detailed review undertaken by the independent Commonwealth Ombudsman, or account for the detailed information provided by the Department of Human Services in its submissions to the inquiry,” it said.
“On this basis, the government rejects the central conclusions and recommendations of the chair’s report, especially the conclusion that the online system lacked procedural fairness.”
However this response has been slammed by Labor and the Greens, who have labelled it as “grossly inadequate”.
In a media release, Labor MP Linda Burney said human services minister Alan Tudge needed to take action on the program’s failures.
“The Senate inquiry produced 21 recommendations which effectively called for a radical overhaul of the system to make it workable,” Burney said.
“The Turnbull government’s refusal to act on the recommendations of the Senate inquiry to overhaul the Online Compliance Intervention program is an insult to the thousands of decent Australians who were caught up in the conservatives’ robo-debt disaster.”
Australian Greens Senator and Community Affairs References Committee chair Rachel Siewert, said the response showed contempt “for the thousands of Australians affected by this debacle”.
“It is frankly insulting to the people who gave evidence at the inquiry to be referred to in this response as third parties looking to score political points. The comments that the chair’s report relied on evidence that was inaccurate is insulting to those who gave evidence,” Siewert said.
“The people who gave evidence at the inquiry were vulnerable people, whose data had been automatically matched without oversight, people who had been harassed by debt collectors days before Christmas, people living below the poverty line wrongly told they only had a number of weeks to pay back thousands of dollars. This inquiry was about the lives of vulnerable Australians.
“We know that this debt collection process impacted on the mental health of many people. This government response shows a government deeply out of touch with people dependent on our social safety net.
“While the Australian Greens welcome the government addressing some issues by implementing the recommendations of the Commonwealth Ombudsman, these changes are not enough to improve an overburdened and understaffed system.”
When the report was originally handed down in June, ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said the government needed to consider the report carefully and not extend the program.
“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.”
The latest government response comes as Tudge announced plans on Wednesday to privatise a Centrelink call centre.
Serco Citizen Services – a subsidiary of multinational Serco – would be contracted to address issues with Centrelink’s call wait times, after it was recently revealed 42 million calls to Centrelink had gone unanswered over the last year.