Centrelink’s controversial robo-debt scheme hits new low

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Centrelink’s controversial robo-debt scheme has been ramped up a notch, according to a top QC.

Former Victorian chief crown prosecutor and QC Gavin Silbert says that social security law changes made in January 2017 – six months after robo-debt was introduced – had removed a previous seven-year time limit on recovering debts and that Centrelink is chasing debt beyond that period.

It was also recently revealed that age pensioners could be robo-debt’s next target in order for the Morrison Government to achieve its promised $2.1 billion in budget savings.

Mr Silbert told nine.com.au that information from Human Services Minister Stuart Robert about the time limit had been “misleading”.

Mr Robert recently said: “Bank records, of course, are always available for seven years. The department (of human services) won’t be going back after seven years in terms of recovering (debts) because there is no way for people to actually have the records they need for it.”

However, after it was revealed that some debt cases dated back to 2010 and 2011, the department sought to clarify the minister’s comments, saying that the seven-year timeline referred to by the minister did not begin when a debt was raised, but when a customer’s income review was triggered by the Australian Tax Office (ATO) data matching program.

“Online compliance reviews extend back seven years from the date we initiate the review, Department of Human Services (DHS) general manager Hank Jongen said in a statement.

Mr Silbert, who has a pro-bono robo-debt case before the Federal Court, said: “I thought (Mr Robert) meant that if someone was going to get a debt letter that the debt would not go back beyond seven years.

“They are dissembling and it’s quite deceptive.

“Any ordinary member of the public listening to the minister’s remarks would think that a debt wouldn’t be claimed beyond the seven years from when the letter of demand went out.

“What they are doing is completely unfair.”

Centrelink has denied it is breaking its own guidelines by chasing older debts. However, Nine News reports that distraught recipients of Centrelink allowances are being told they owe money from as far back as nine years ago “and are now facing the near-impossible task of trying to prove the debt is incorrect”.

Nine News gave the example of a Sydney woman who said she had no idea Centrelink was claiming she owed them money until her 2018-19 tax return vanished.

“They took the whole lot, it was $840. I didn’t even know anything about it. I had to ring the ATO who told me to ring Centrelink,” she said.

“I was gutted. I was expecting that money, and I needed that money. At no time was there any inkling that I wasn’t going to get that tax back.”

The DHS alleges that between 2010 and 2013, the woman reported income from her part-time job incorrectly while she was looking after her dying mother and receiving a carer’s allowance.

Nine News reported other instances of debt recovery dating back nine years, with the ‘offenders’ claiming they had no knowledge of the action earlier and no way to refute the claims because of their age.

Under Centrelink’s robo-debt system, yearly income data from the ATO is matched with welfare payments. The onus of proof is on the recipients to show they don’t owe the debt.

About 850,000 Centrelink compliance reviews have been finalised since July 2015, with 20 per cent fully waived after the recipient proved he or she did not have a debt.

The DHS says the system is “working as it should”.

Do you keep records beyond seven years? Could you disprove a robo-debt from 2010 or 2011?

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RELATED LINKS

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Written by Janelle Ward

86 Comments

Total Comments: 86
  1. 0
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    Carer Allowance is not means tested, so the Nine News story is BS.

    • 0
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      Carer Allowance is indeed Income tested. You got that one wrong. The 9 News story therefore is correct.

      From Human Services site (https://www.humanservices.gov.au/individuals/services/centrelink/carer-allowance/eligibility/payment-rates):

      “Payment rates

      There’s no assets test for Carer Allowance but there is an income test.

      If you meet the Carer Allowance income test, your income doesn’t affect how much Carer Allowance you can get.”

    • 0
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      Income tested, McDaddy – income tested….

    • 0
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      Mcdaddy
      Carers allowance is non meanstested as I was receiving it for a short time when my brother was terminally ill
      And was fully employed but on paid leave

    • 0
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      Besides which, the article says that the DHS alleged the woman reported income from her part-time job incorrectly. THAT was the reason for the robodebt – incorrect reporting of income. It is very difficult or impossible to predict in advance how much one is going to be paid when you are working part-time, especially if you are on call or working different shifts where penalty rates may apply.

    • 0
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      Thanks, Trebor, income test only kicks in when your income is greater than $250k PA

    • 0
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      McDaddy, Carers allowance is means tested. I know as was refused due to earning too much – even though the tax office used to add a ‘low income allowance’ to my tax return each year.

      We were always told to keep records for 7 years and 1 day. After that they were not needed as no debt could be claimed. Now suddenly they are changing the rules. I doubt that anyone has records older than 7 years, I know I don’t.

  2. 0
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    How can the system be working properly when 20% fully waived after the recipient proved he or she did not have a debt? Then why were they targeted in the first place? And how many innocents couldn’t show they were right? I agree to hound the guilty but this system has been proven bad all along.

    • 0
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      Many years before Robo-debt my elderly mother put an extra zero on her income when submitting a tax return.
      She was sent a huge tax bill. She phoned and told them the error however they kept hounding her month after month and she became very distressed. In the end she employed a tax agent to help and no more nasty letters arrived in the mail. After that she never did her own income tax again.

      What I don’t understand in this case was why wasn’t the person in the case above notified of the debt supposedly owed back in 2010 and 2013 so she too could have rectified the error at the time. The government knows exactly how much each individual earns in this computerised age so I would say its a software issue yet again.

    • 0
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      It’s only 20% of the reviews not 20% of all the debts raised.

    • 0
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      What percentage are required to be reviewed? How many people in an emotionally battered state or with mental insufficiency are caught up with a demand for payment without having any idea what to do?

  3. 0
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    Why don’t they go after companies who are not paying their way tax wise. Maybe cos it would show how many have not been paying taxes for years. Easier to just look a older pensioners who probably dont have records going back that far. And how accurate are the ATO and centrelink records?

    • 0
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      WHY? – the answer is easy. The little people are an easy target. Big companies have a bank of legal experts to call on, and then the luxury of claiming the costs as a business expense. So it’s much easier to go after those who have the least chance to fight back. So many seniors don’t keep paperwork – after all, they encourage people to not hoard, and to cut down on things.
      My elderly aunt gets a bill, pays it, then throws it out. That is what she has always done. She too got hit with a so-called robodebt and it was a nightmare to try and resolve. Made it hard as they will not give you a summary or breakdown, but I worked it out that It had to do with her husband having moved into an aged care facility where he subsequently died 8 months later. Letter was 3.5years after he passed away, and she had not kept one single bit of paperwork as she had downsized from a 3BR house, to an Aged Care place. It was almost a full time job for me to try and resolve this, but finally did so, and the so-called debt was found to be false and totally wiped.
      As for accuracy of centrelink records? – I personally have experience where they got my information TOTALLY wrong! On aged pension, I started a casual 2 day a week job. I told CL that I would be working full time for training for the first week only – and the idiots stupidly assumed that this was to be my every week pay, so they cancelled my part pension. I only found out when my local Council contacted me to sat that my Council rates rebate was cancelled. CL did not even bother to contact me. It took weeks to sort out, and even then their calculation for back pay was totally wrong. In the end, I chucked in the part time job, as I simply could not trust them to come back in years to come, with some fake Robodebt, saying I owed money. If you have experienced their incompetence, believe me, you do not want to have anything to do with them.

    • 0
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      “Why don’t they go after companies who are not paying their way tax wise”

      Spot on Pedro.

    • 0
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      And that amount owed by companies and the elite wealthy would cover all pensions, the NDIS, new start, etc. It is about values and morals, this mob have no compassion as illustrated by the Biloela family languishing on Christmas Island.
      Poor people have no defence so are an easy mark to extract money from, much easier than where the big money is!

  4. 0
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    For the life of me I just cannot understand that people do as they are told. Saying you owe without proof/facts and figures is a nonsense and I’d be taking threats from Centrelink to The Ombudsman’s Office or looking for a Class Action from one of the ambulance chaser lawyers who’l do the work for a percentage of the payout. There’s little belief that Centrelink could win such an action.

    • 0
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      Totally agree mick! Look at it this way…you get a letter from Company A in the mail, saying “you owe $X and have to pay it all back within 28 days”. That’s all – doesn’t say what the amount is for, or give any breakdown, and says was due to error made 5/7/9/15 years ago. You would laugh, and throw it in the bin where it belongs.
      WHY is Dept of Human Services (Centrelink) the exception to this? Having experienced this farce, I am sure, absolutely positive that these robodebts are deliberately targeted at the poor, vulnerable, not so educated and disadvantaged. Those that cannot fight back, don’t keep every little scrap of paper. The onus is on people to prove they do NOT owe a debt – how on earth are you supposed to prove a negative?

    • 0
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      It all depends upon the law. If the government have written a law, or similar, then ordinary people are helpless.
      It is all part of how right wingers balance their budget, or get a surplus, is by cutting back on things like welfare and pensions to those who can least afford it. In the UK they call it “austerity” and there people with a job are having to go to food banks to get enough food for the week. The U.S. is similar and coming to a town near you is ———- How good is a food bank?

    • 0
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      It all depends upon the law. If the government have written a law, or similar, then ordinary people are helpless.
      It is all part of how right wingers balance their budget, or get a surplus, is by cutting back on things like welfare and pensions to those who can least afford it. In the UK they call it “austerity” and there people with a job are having to go to food banks to get enough food for the week. The U.S. is similar and coming to a town near you is ———- How good is a food bank?

    • 0
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      Apparently a lot of desperate people have paid the debt, even if they think it is incorrect, simply because they are dependent on Centelink for their meagre income. They are afraid they’ll be cut off all together if they make a fuss. The letters are very threatening, I’ve heard.

    • 0
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      Climate of Fear of City Hall – been going for a long time in this country with all sorts of rules and ‘laws’ that impose on the ordinary citizen without valid reason… I said years ago the plan was to instill compliance in the community in that climate of fear… step out of line or even be accused of stepping out of line, and you’ll cop it.

      Always been a serious fault with Australian society and has gotten worse under the tutelage of the social scientists with their cold-hearted theories.

      Feminist rules – is no man – is no problem!

    • 0
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      Oh TREBOR, you were sounding so much like a sensible person until your last paragraph. Do you really believe sexism has any part in the rolling out of Robodebt? It’s these type of throwaway comments that only serve to diffuse the issue of BIg Brother governments & rule of tyranny by the elite over poorer people – an issue I’m fairly sure we both agree on wholeheartedly.

      If you want to talk about sexism & poor people, let’s start with this question: Which gender, on average, is clearly the poorest in terms of wealth & superannuation?

      You’re a bit crazy when it comes to feminist conspiracy theories. I understand you have legitimate personal reasons for having a negative attitude towards a woman or two. Stop bundling all females up together by your generalising from isolated experiences. It’s like some radical feminists (women who were raped by their fathers & brothers when they were children) saying all men are rapists – it’s clearly not true but their emotions & thoughts are coloured by their very negative experiences.

      Today is a new day. We only truly have this moment in time to be free of the past.

    • 0
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      Not at all, Hoohoo – it was a comparison with the style… not an inclusion of feminism as a root cause of all evils – just some… just draw the comparison with the reduction in real rights of any ‘accused’ ….

      I am very careful to keep separate my issues – feminism is but one salient example of the program to install a Climate Of Fear in dealing with city hall – first remove any right to innocence….. (fill in the rest)……… and all of hell followed after it….

  5. 0
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    The robotdebt collection ddoes not rely onvalid lawss but an arrogant philosophy of “Don’t do as I do; do as I say. This corporation believes it is above any laws that apply to others.

  6. 0
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    With regards to OAP debt, if we had a system that paid a set pension to everyone over 65 regardless of their financial wealth and ongoing employment as they do in most countries in the world it would be interesting to know the difference in costs compared with the current system that racks up millions in admin and overheads and incurs a huge peripheral cost in legal involvement etc.
    The possible reason we don’t is that the CL is a great way of keeping unemployment stats down.

  7. 0
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    In the meantime this is going on !!
    scott morrison on about $1700- per day !!

  8. 0
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    Thanks Gravy, they did introduce an Income test recently…..you are not eligible to receive Carer Allowance if your income is greater than $250k PA, so either the 9 news story is wrong or she earned more than $250k PA.

  9. 0
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    Maybe its time for a royal commission on Centrelink and the way the Government is managing or mis-managing (depending on your view) how Centrelink works. Myself I feel it should be run by an independent company so there is no conflict of interest. How can the government set policy and run this department without bias? This article highlighted Centrelink management are targeting some of the most vulnerable to ensure a budget surplus. That is a conflict of interest in any book. Why focus on the vulnerable when the big companies pay no tax or very little tax?
    This is a sad sad day when those on welfare payments are being targeted to create a budget surplus, why not make the commonwealth gov smaller in size with less perks, how much money would that save us taxpayers?

    • 0
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      You’re asking the guard to guard the guard who guards you, while one guard is kicking the shot out of you? Asking for a Royal Commission is like asking a football referee to make up the rules as he goes along and for the Referees committee to ensure they put ‘the right kind’ into the job …..

      Hmmm ..

    • 0
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      Well said Ted, agree entirely.

    • 0
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      Ted. I dont like to be a negative, but which particular company would have the ability to conduct such an inquiry, and not be either one of the big 4 consulting companies, stacked with ex-right wing hacks, or be loaded with Scomo’s advertising mates?

    • 0
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      Yes won’t be long now, they are outsourcing everything. But would it improve anything?

    • 0
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      Ted Wards, You have an independent company [French] dealing with welfare in Britain and it has lead to over 250,000 deaths.
      You have people having payments suspended because they were 1 minute late for an interview. And it is not just one payment but ALL future payments!
      People have been told they are fit for work while in hospital with cancer.
      One woman attended an interview while having a heart attack because she knew if she didn’t show, for ANY reason, they cut your payment.
      Is THIS the kind of people you want in charge of paying people their pensions, unemployment etc.
      Sorry, but I don’t!

  10. 0
    0

    Big Brother with a bigger stick against those who are most vulnerable & unable to have the emotional & financial resources to contest.
    Lets see if the ATO go after big business with an 8-9-10 year prove or else claim after their records have been shredded after 7.
    If Morrison was a true compassionate christian as he claims he would stop the tax cuts for his rich mates which would save far more then the 2 billion the government claim they’ll save by attacking the most vulnerable in society.

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