Robo-debt now ‘terrorising pensioners’

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie raised concerns on Monday that pensioners are becoming the latest target of Centrelink’s much-maligned data-matching system.

Last month, the federal government agreed to pay $112 million in compensation to approximately 400,000 individual group members in a class action settlement, after they were wrongly accused of owing Centrelink money.

Robo-debt was a system where Centrelink used a computer in an effort to calculate welfare overpayments to establish that a debt was owed.

That system used data from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and averaged income data across either part or all of the fortnights in which recipients received payments. It treated those averaged amounts as actual earnings and often ignored what the recipient actually earned at the time, causing many false debts to be raised.

Mr Wilkie told parliament that pensioners had contacted his office, claiming that a similar automated Centrelink system was now contacting them.

“Centrelink’s automated data-matching system is now terrorising pensioners, this time with demonic algorithms bombarding the elderly with reams of threatening and confusing correspondence,” Mr Wilkie said.

“Increasingly, I am hearing from constituents hit with automation of income stream system reviews.

“For instance, an 89-year-old woman who received a letter ordering her online to provide the government information lest her pension be cut off. And another, who indeed did have her payment cancelled due to an error that would have been obvious to the human eye.”

Mr Wilkie urged the government to learn from the robo-debt scandal and order a halt “to this latest robo-monster”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison denied that there was anything wrong with the system and asked pensioners to follow the instructions and provide the information they were being asked to supply.

“Services Australia requires information about income streams held by payment recipients to calculate their payment entitlements under the social security income and assets test,” Mr Morrison said. “That is their job.”

Mr Morrison said that the letter to pensioners contained either a number to call or an opportunity to go online.

“I would simply ask people … if they have received such a letter … that they would simply contact that number, or go online as the letter suggests, and provide the information that they have been asked for and that should lead to the ready resolution of those issues,” Mr Morrison said.

Watch the exchange between Mr Wilkie and Mr Morrison here:

In related robo-debt news, critics of the system fear Centrelink’s new debt collectors have failed to learn from the failures of the old system, with tender documents revealing that new collection agencies must continuously compete to beat financial target for recovering money from customers.

Australian Unemployed Workers Union spokeswoman Kristin O’Connell told the ABC tat she was surprised that the department was going to outsource the work.

“As the government’s own documents acknowledge, this outsourcing model means debt collectors have incentives that can result in ‘unintended and perverse’ behaviour to meet targets and trigger fees,” Ms O’Connell said.

Have you received a letter from Centrelink asking you to provide information or lose you pension? Are you worried you may be wrongly targeted by Centrelink’s data-matching system?

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Ben Hocking
Ben Hocking
Ben Hocking is a skilled writer and editor with interests and expertise in politics, government, Centrelink, finance, health, retirement income, superannuation, Wordle and sports.
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