The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has called on the government to immediately cancel all robo-debts and refund the money, plus interest, after revelations it owes nearly 450,000 people more than half a billion dollars in false robo-debts.
An exclusive report in The Guardian last week revealed that the government expects to lose an upcoming class action against the income compliance program commonly referred to as robo-debt and intends to settle.
The report also revealed that while Centrelink resources have been diverted into dealing with new JobSeeker claims, Services Australia staff continue to chase Australians for payslips and bank statements in an effort to validate potentially unlawful welfare debts.
The Guardian reports that a leaked ministerial submission to cabinet from government ministers Stuart Robert, Anne Ruston and Christian Porter, prepared last month, reveals that the commonwealth expects to refund more than 400,000 debts over the next 12 months.
“Services Australia estimates that it will administer 449,500 refunds determined under the program, and their associated repaid debts would be refunded commencing in July 2020 and concluding within 12 months,” it says.
The submission says Services Australia estimates that “$555.6m in cash payments have been received from recipients to date for those in-scope debts”.
ACOSS chief executive Dr Cassandra Goldie said it was important that the money be refunded straight away in these trying times.
“These are damning revelations, and we urge the federal government to immediately repay what it owes to people across Australia,” Dr Goldie said.
“Many of these people are applying for income support or were already receiving income support. They are in desperate circumstances and should never have been charged with a false debt.
“As we know, there is unprecedented demand for Centrelink. Centrelink staff should not be tasked with administering robodebt, especially when people cannot get through to someone on the phone to access essential income support.
“Robodebt should never have seen the light of day. It must be immediately shut down and all false debts repaid.”
ACOSS social security adviser Charmaine Crowe also called on the government to further expand Centrelink as more people continue to lose their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
““In addition to cancelling robo-debt, ACOSS calls for Centrelink staffing to be boosted by 15,000,” Ms Crowe said.
“While 5000 extra staff is welcome, it will not meet demand, especially if one million people lose their jobs.”
ACOSS wrote to minister Stuart Robert and minister Anne Ruston last week calling for the following:
- an additional 10,000 permanent Centrelink staff in addition to the 5000 already announced to meet demand
- a hotline for people to call to access income support
- a broad communication campaign to advise people on what they need to do to access income support
- suspension of mutual obligation requirements during the coronavirus crisis
- allow online identification to speed up claims process.
Should the government immediately refund the money taken through the botched robo-debt program?
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