A new “robo-debt” trial being conducted by Centrelink is targeting the most vulnerable of welfare recipients, including elderly Australians.
The previous scandal-ridden robo-debt program had safeguards that prevented collection notices from being sent to certain recipients, such as those with a mental illnesses or who are receiving regular medical treatment.
These recipients had their files marked with a “vulnerability indicator” that alerted the system to withhold sending debt collection letters to those who may have been overpaid benefits.
“But several weeks ago, Centrelink began sending letters to a ‘small number’ of people marked as vulnerable in its systems,” The Guardian reported.
In the second rollout, the only group of individuals who will be protected from receiving robo-debt claims are those who have been recent victims of family violence.
Homeless people, those with a serious mental illness or cognitive impairment will be fair game.
However, those in the vulnerable category will be treated differently to other welfare recipients. They will have more time to respond to the debt recovery process and greater support to find the details required.
The onus will continue to be on the targeted individuals to prove they did not owe Centrelink money.
Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) chief executive Cassandra Goldie has slammed the program as “deeply irresponsible”.
“People will experience serious anxiety, depression and a sense of hopelessness, which we know already occurs under robodebt,” Ms Goldie said.
“The difference here is that government is imposing this harmful program on people who have a history of poor mental health. It is deeply irresponsible to extend a program that has caused damage to people’s wellbeing to people with poor mental health.”
But a Department of Human Services spokeswoman said people were being “invited” to call Centrelink at a time that suited them in order to update their income details.
“During this call, staff help people to review, confirm or update their income details,” the spokeswoman said. “Should this result in a debt, our staff will talk through repayment options based on the person’s circumstances.”
The Guardian reported that it was not known if the practice of “averaging” would be used in the new debt program if recipients failed to respond to Centrelink letters.
Income averaging is currently used against other welfare recipients who are identified by the system as owing a potential debt, but either ignore or don’t receive Centrelink’s letters. It takes a welfare recipient’s annual income and averages it across Centrelink’s 26 fortnightly reporting periods, often leading to the false assumption that a person worked through the entire year and was ineligible for social security, the report said.
Former Administrative Appeals Tribunal member Terry Carney has criticised averaging and suggests it is unlawful and breaches Commonwealth laws. He argues Centrelink must resume its previous practice whereby it obtained all the information required to prove the debt exists.
Centrelink has rejected his views.
Do you think Centrelink is going too far by forcing incapacitated welfare recipients to prove they do not owe a debt?