Inquiry finds litany of Centrelink errors has caused extensive harm.
The release of the Senate inquiry report into Centrelink’s debt recovery program could see the system suspended until flaws are rectified.
The system has been heavily criticised for issuing debt notices in error and for the inability of welfare recipients to seek redress.
The Senate committee’s report into the robo-debt recovery scheme was handed down last night, along with 21 suggestions for how to fix the "broken" system – the first of which is to put the program ‘on hold’.
"The system was so flawed that it was set up to fail," stated the report.
"This lack of procedural fairness disempowered people, causing emotional trauma, stress and shame."
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge rebutted the report’s findings.
"This is a politically motivated and factually inaccurate report, reflecting the fact that Labor and the Greens don't support auditing of the welfare system," said Mr Tudge.
The Senate inquiry attracted 155 submissions, 87 of which were submitted confidentially.
Some of the 21 recommendations include:
- the program be put on hold until all flaws can be addressed
- any rollout of a redesigned system must include a robust risk assessment process
- those who have had a debt flagged by the system should have them reassessed immediately by a team with specialised knowledge
- all debts highlighted to be manually checked and verified
- barriers to individuals responding to claims of overpayment, such as technical issues and communication problems should be considered when deciding to waive the debt recovery fee
- clear advice on the internal and external review process should be given to customers
Greens senator Rachel Siewert welcomed the reports recommendations, saying “The evidence presented to the committee as it travelled across the country was compelling, consistent, and showed a program that was putting huge pressure on some of the most vulnerable members of our community.
“Procedural fairness is lacking in every stage of the robo-debt program; whether it be the forcing of people to reach back through their paperwork from six years ago, sending debt letters to the wrong address and/or not engaging with concerned recipients, or averaging out of income data, often producing incorrect results.”
One of the biggest issues with Centrelink’s debt recovery system has been the speed with which it has been implemented. The Commonwealth Ombudsman stated that mistakes were inevitable given the speed of the rollout.
While the robo-debt program officially started in July, it didn’t really get going until September. By December, 20,000 robo-notices were being sent out each week.
Rather than talking about how they can scale things back, the Government has instead been discussing expanding the service and pensioners could be next on the hit list.
The Government expects to send out nearly 1.7 million notices in the coming three years.
While the Government has at least indicated that any discrepancies would be manually checked before the system was rolled out to pensioners, it is likely we will see a new set of problems emerge when the expansion of the automated debt-recovery system takes place from 1 July.
Already New Matilda cites an unconfirmed report of a $90,000 debt being issued against a disability pensioner.
The Government has a lot more at stake with this expansion. Pensioners will not take kindly to the Department of Human Services making mistakes especially if they continue with the threatening letters with little time to address the issues.
An election could be up to two years away, but many are predicting it could happen much earlier. If that is the case, the Government will want to make sure everything runs smoothly with any extension of this system or face a significant backlash at the polls.