Robo-debt scheme hits new low

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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Written by Janelle Ward

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