The Department of Human Services (DHS) has not ruled out expanding the robo-debt program to target age pensioners and vulnerable Australians currently on the ‘safe list’.
DHS department secretary Renee Leon said that while the department had no current plans to target age pensioners, any decision to expand the scheme to meet budget targets would happen “further down the track”.
Leaked government documents seen by Guardian Australia revealed how the DHS recommended the cabinet sign on off on 350,000 online debt compliance reviews of older and vulnerable Australians over the next three years in order to meet “estimated savings over the forward estimates [that] cannot be achieved without undertaking sensitive cohort reviews”.
The submission proposed phasing in robo-debt reviews of older Australians, which would have begun with a small number of reviews early next year.
The government appears to have shelved that idea – at least for the short term.
When Greens senator Rachel Siewert asked Ms Leon at senate estimates whether the government would expand the scheme to include older Australians and the vulnerable, Ms Leon replied: “The government has no plans to recommence those.”
When Ms Siewert pressed on, asking “that doesn’t answer my question, have you provided advice?”
Ms Leon replied: “We discuss the operation of the program with government from time to time and in the course of that, the government has indicated that it has no intention to recommence the reviews of those cohorts.”
When asked by Labor’s Claire Moore if the government could make its estimated targets while still excluding sensitive cohorts, Ms Leon said a decision could be made in future, but maintained that there was no “current” proposal or “immediate fiscal need” to make this decision while the scheme was on track to meet its targets.
“Whether we will need to go to government and seek their views about putting them back in is a matter that we’ll come to further down the track depending on the progress of the program,” said Ms Leon.
The robo-debt scheme has been heavily criticised since its inception, with multiple examples of incorrect debt notices and bullying tactics of vulnerable Australians.
During estimates, the department conceded that a “manual staff error” led to 10,000 incorrect debt notices sent in April, and that Centrelink had issued debts to 169 welfare recipients who were already dead, and also approached representatives of “deceased customers” in 515 cases. Almost all the debts were waived.
The scheme is the subject of a second Senate inquiry, a federal court challenge and a potential class action.
Labor’s Kimberley Kitching also questioned Ms Leon on the legality of the scheme, asking if the department had “any concerns about the lack of legal foundation for the scheme, particularly its reverse onus of proof”.
“We don’t accept that there’s a reverse onus of proof, Senator,” said Ms Leon.
Would you be surprised if the scheme was expanded to include older Australians? Do you think age pensioners should be included?