Senate inquiry calls for an end to robo-debt system

Inquiry finds litany of Centrelink errors has caused extensive harm.

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
  • the Department of Social Services updates its privacy policy to ensure no personal and private details are incorrectly released
  • 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.”

Read the Senate committee report: Design, scope, cost-benefit analysis, contracts awarded and implementation associated with the Better Management of the Social Welfare System initiative

Opinion: Pensioners won’t stand for robo-debt errors

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.



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    22nd Jun 2017
    The Senate report is welcome, but I think it's way too late for the Government to save itself. The robo-debt debacle is only one sign of a dysfunctional government that is engaged in a social re-engineering exercise to shift all national wealth to the rich and ensure strugglers never have a chance to lift themselves up. This government is on the nose, and I doubt it can do anything to repair its bad image - even if it delays the election to the latest possible date.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Good Call I agree. The public will show the government what they think at the next election.
    23rd Jun 2017
    That's right, Rainey, this Minister and indeed the Govt (including all the leaders since Abbott took over in 2013) are arrogant in the extreme and must be turfed out.

    I had commented when this robo debt recovery debacle started, that the system MUST be immediately stopped, and all morons associated with it's design & implementation must be sacked. Also, the Senate committee is a waste of taxpayer's money if recommendations (which are good) are not implemented - what a system we have!
    Not a Bludger
    22nd Jun 2017
    Another leftie biased "waste of time & money" senate report.

    Those who rort the system should be named, shamed and forced to repay my/our taxpayers funds.

    Seeking info from those receiving such funds in support of eligibility is right and proper and must continue.

    Whether such letters are handwritten, typed, printed from a computer, signed or robo generated matters not one jot or tittle.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Problem is the robo system doesn't work properly , the claims made against people are wrong and those people are then treated as guilty until they can somehow prove they are innocent.
    Typical beat up of the poor by the Liberal elite as they pick up their millions of dollars of support and tax breaks for big business provided by the working people of this country. I'm sure they are all laughing at the pain they are causing while they sip an expensive wine from their Sydney mansions.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Not a Bludger,
    The robo debt system is and always has been flawed, if it worked properly there would not have been such an outcry about the letters going out.
    The government is using the threat of debt collectors calling as a first contact NOT because people are guilty but because the current government likes threatening people knowing many will pay out money without trying to prove they are not guilty.
    As you know it isn't possible to prove a negative.
    We self funded retirees receiving a very small part pension will be next on the government's hit list, after that will be the fully self funded retirees.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Unless we "Get Rid" of ALL THREE major political parties and are adopting "Eternal Vigilance" upon those who then "Drift UP" to this power level of a New Government, we better get used to the INQUISITION because it "Will be here to STAY"!!
    22nd Jun 2017
    You got that right.
    22nd Jun 2017
    The Senate Report and the recommendations are very welcome.
    Unfortunately the government is unlikely to take much notice , if any, and will send out more and more inaccurate and offensive letters of demand.
    In my opinion if people are rorting the system it should be cleared up and money paid back however most pensioners are honest and are not ripping off the system which will not stop them being harassed by the threat of debt collectors calling to collect money.
    The harassment of age and disability pensioners and the unemployed is going too far and causing a lot of unnecessary suffering and distress to people who are often too ill to cope with it.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Let us pause for a moment - and review......

    The 'government' (a misnomer since government has many facets, not all included in the Houses of Parliament, and around 70% of GoverNANCE is carried out and on by regulation within public service bodies)... calls an inquiry from a select committee of the Senate.....

    (and never forget that Government of the Nation is NOT wholely in the hands of the House of Representatives (thus there is ZERO 'mandate' of that House), but also is in the hands The Senate, The Public Service, The Judiciary.. and several other appointed 'Commissions' for specific purposes)....

    That 'commission of inquiry' finds that the approach of 'robo-debt' is wrongfully based and generates many errors, problems and issues that require resolution.

    The Government-Elect in the House of Representatives rejects that finding.

    Perhaps then, that Government-Elect should refer the matter to the courts for resolution... something readily available, but potentially biased through the process of 'stacking' the higher courts of the land.

    Or perhaps the Public Service body directly involved... should simply respond that.. "No - this approach is flawed and a different approach needs to be followed."

    Fat Hank will NEVER come at that since to do so would mean termination of his contract (told yez before that the Fascist John Howard* de-balled the Public Service by having its 'senior executive' appointed by the government of the day, thus removing its independence, since it was now subject to the government of the day and NOT its 'mandate'.)

    So where is the solution, People? Bow down or fight? Bury your head in the fox-hole and eexpect that the vicious enemy will not bayonet you in the back .. Feel free... or fight for yourself, your family and your nation.

    *John Howard has no idea (if he ever had an idea at all in reality) that he is a Fascist, first and foremost, as are all his acolytes, including the 'left' leaning Labor party of today.
    22nd Jun 2017
    If they think they can attack age pensioners, especially where it is incorrect and unwarranted (robodebt), let them prepare for a firestorm. Many pensioners are well-educated, don't have money to spare, and are not backward in coming forward. Bring it on!
    22nd Jun 2017
    And there will be those pensioners who think nothing of pocketing the $30 a night they charge people to sleep in the spare room through Air B & B and the like without telling Centrelink or some similar fraudulent action. Not pensioners are sweet little old ladies and gentlemen who always tell the truth.

    If you take payments from the Government then expect to be audited. And rightly so.
    22nd Jun 2017
    to KSS.. the age pension is a right and don't forget...and I'll vote for that even if you and you like-minded cronies don't..
    Play Fairly
    22nd Jun 2017
    Rtrish & Thommo, I'm with you. I can't think of a more despicable act than a government treating Aged Pensioners badly. The Ministers responsible for robo-debt need to be kicked soooo far that they never again have an opportunity to be in control of people's welfare and lives.

    You know, nobody could even make up the whole robo-debt fiasco. It is so unbelievable. With 42million Centrelink phone calls going unanswered since last December, Centrelink staff being unable to help, and the assumption that people had rorted Centrelink and forced to provide proof that they were innocent. Horrible people in control of the most vulnerable people in our society, the aged, the sick, the unemployed, and the needy.

    If some political entity doesn't come forward and demand the necessary changes to Centrelink, then we are going to see the rollout of Indue Cards to Aged Pensioners. I, for one, do not want 80% of my Pension put on an Indue Card, which will only be accepted at certain locations. I think we all have to contact our Local Members to let them know things can't go on this way. Elderly people do not need any of this rubbish in their lives.
    22nd Jun 2017
    I agree Play Fairly, we certainly do not need this rubbish from our government.
    As for the Indue card I believe it is only accepted at major stores which doesn't help regional or rural people at all.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Give me a card and I will fight you to the death.

    Mersage sent.... and you clowns in Parliament know full well who I am.
    ex PS
    25th Jun 2017
    KSS, you can't blame the Pensioners for rorting the accommodation market, they learned that it is OK from the politicians.
    Look at how many politicians have bought properties in Canberra in their spouse's names just so they can collect thousands of dollars in subsidies from the taxpayer.
    They certainly know how to set an example, the only crime is being found out.

    22nd Jun 2017
    This Government of Entitlement needs more money to upkeep its own decadence. They will be back.

    22nd Jun 2017
    I am always cautious when I read about a Senate inquiry. My first thought is how the inquiry is made up. If it is even handed, I don't have a problem but if it is heavily laden with one party then I take any finding with a grain of salt. My cynicism has been finely tuned over many years as I have seen too many of these inquiries lean too far in favour of the majority panel and the truth is the first casualty.

    Interestingly, details of the submissions are not made available. I'm sure that such clever people on this inquiry could have grouped the submissions to show how many didn't like the system, those who agreed with it and those who have been caught and will need to repay overpayments. It's very easy to make broad statements and hide behind "confidentiality".

    Now, in the matter of robo-debt recovery, I believe that it should continue on the basis that those with nothing to hide should have nothing to fear. The flaw in the system, as I read it, is the shortness of time for people accused to get their paperwork together and this must be fixed. For those who have rorted the system, no amount of extra time will forestall the inevitable. I say these things because I believe in the rule of law and if we stop pursuing those people who have broken the law, where will that end.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Hi Old Man,
    I absolutely agree that the findings of a Senate inquiry need to be balanced against the make-up of the panel and of course the subject and boundaries of that inquiry.

    Nor do I have a problem with auditing tax-payer funded payments where there are reasonable grounds for suspicion of fraud.

    However, I suggest that you overlooked the issue on this occasion that Centrelink employees have themselves stated that the demands have been compromised by erroneous calculations ( because different date ranges were applied)and by rapid implementation lacking due diligence, that resulted in inappropriate demands being sent to far too many recipients.
    One example is friends of mine who received a demand for over $3000 each. They contacted Centrelink to point out an obvious discrepancy and had the claim dismissed on the spot. They are savvy and computer literate people, perhaps not your average pensioner who perhaps struggles with bureaucrats, but they were pretty upset, I can tell you.
    So although Minister Tudge may opine that the outcome of the inquiry was a Labor/Greens stitch up, there many voters who don’t agree with his attempt to whitewash the situation. Minister Tudge should admit there is an issue, fix it and regain credibility for himself and his Party.
    22nd Jun 2017
    So Tudge is attempting to tudge an answer by trotting out that long-dead canard :- It's all Labor's fault and we're only cleaning up the mess?

    Either these political hacks are abysmally stupid or they think the voting public is abysmally stupid.
    Big Kev
    23rd Jun 2017
    Dear Old Man, I worked in Centrelink Debt recovery a few years ago and we had quite a number of debts that were revoked as forms had been lodged and not recorded because people on low incomes move regularly and all it takes is someone to data enter incorrectly and there is an overpayment. Current staff tell me that the system now is wrong about 40% of the time. One of the big problems is the time for mail. Australia Post has given three days metropolitan delivery and at least five days rural delivery. Yet clients only have ten days to respond including time to locate and gain information. On top of that the way the matching system matches income to payments is broken. Income reported for one fortnight that causes no payment that fortnight is spread over time and creates a far larger overpayment. This isn't politics it is about justice and fair treatment.
    24th Jun 2017
    Old Man, I agree with some of your comments, but I have had experience with Centrelink and the error rate is horrifying, as is the difficulty of getting an error corrected. I've had to point employees to laws that evidence they are clearly WRONG in their assessment, yet they persist. I've witnessed unbelievable arrogance, contempt for clients, and downright incompetence. Yes, it's a minority - but it only takes a minority. Add a flawed policy to the equation and you create a disaster for many innocent people.

    I thought we in Australia subscribed to the belief that one is innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. The flawed Robo-debt system has resulted in presumptions of guilt, and that's unacceptable. Pursue those who break the law by all means, but make damned sure they DID break the law first.
    ex PS
    25th Jun 2017
    The big problem with your theory Old Man is that there are too many with nothing to hide who are being persecuted. I have an expectation that if a system is initiated by the government it should work. They have the resources, they have the people and they have the time to get it right before foisting it on an unsuspecting public. God knows how many innocent people have ended up paying bogus bills because they made the mistake of trusting that this incompetent government could be trusted to look after their best interests.
    22nd Jun 2017
    The government will definitely see a backlash in the polls from pensioners, not just because of the robo debt issue, but also because of the assets test, which the Abbott govt changed on 1.1.17. The robo debt issue is not due to a dysfunctional was a deliberate and cruel policy by Minister Tudge and the government itself, to harass and intimidate all welfare recipients.
    This government will get it's comeuppance at the next election, when ever it is, and good riddance to them.
    22nd Jun 2017
    I'd like to give this government a back..lash just before we sack them, in a public square would be nice.
    Not Senile Yet!
    22nd Jun 2017
    Do not care what they do!
    Will not Vote for this Corrupt Party and its puppets nor any of the others!
    Attacking Pensioners next?
    While they give away money they simply dont have....pathetic Loons!
    Talk about Dumb & Dumber and labor are not any better!
    Any idiot knows you get a Professional Administrator to oversee/manage the Computer Programmers....or you get a Complete Botched Job!
    Joy Anne
    22nd Jun 2017
    Good news. The Government will not be saved after destroying peoples lives. Most have been honest and you have gone after people who have been honest. The crooks are still there. I agree with Rainey.
    22nd Jun 2017
    I suggest that, on the basis of probability, the so called Robo Debt system is fatally flawed. Not that recouping public money that has been wrongly paid, either by criminal design or inadvertent misunderstanding, is not in itself wrong but the method used appears inappropriate. I learned long ago that relying solely on computer programs is fraught with danger. It would appear that the Centrelink programmers thought they were so good they did not need to thoroughly test their product in all situations; if they had mistakes may have been detected earlier and a lot of distress avoided. I say close down RoboDebt until it has undergone 3rd party review so Centrelink can assure everyone that it is better that 99% accurate.
    22nd Jun 2017
    PS. and the government chase Mr Day and Mr Culleton for the Senatorial salaries they were wrongly paid.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Make that 4th and 5th Party Review, and I'm with you.
    Play Fairly
    22nd Jun 2017
    Eddy, and don't forget about Centrelink sicking the Debt Collectors onto a contracted out cost of $15million+ .......for debts people did not owe.

    I read a very sad story today about a disabled woman who received a letter to say she owed money to Centrelink. Centrelink started taking repayments out of her Disability Pension, with the result that she could no longer afford to pay her rent, and lost her feeling of having some sort of independence. Fortunately her brother took her to his place, otherwise she would have been out on the street. She became deeply depressed and took her own life. A week after her funeral her brother opened a Centrelink letter which said that she did not owe anything.

    I am completely at a loss to understand how the Ministers, and others involved, haven’t been sacked. Actually the PM should have offered some insight into exactly what action he is going to take regarding those responsible.
    22nd Jun 2017
    Robots & Artificial Intelligence are programmed to have NO FEELINGS!!!!
    22nd Jun 2017
    to PLAY FAIRLY... this government doesn't give a stuff about anyone on the lower rungs of the ladder, especially pensioners..the members of this govt are wolves in sheep's clothing, which speaks for itself.
    22nd Jun 2017
    to PLAY FAIRLY... this government doesn't give a stuff about anyone on the lower rungs of the ladder, especially pensioners..the members of this govt are wolves in sheep's clothing, which speaks for itself.

    22nd Jun 2017
    TRUST once broken can never be restored... perhaps the best outcome from all this, sadly, is that it is a further nail in the coffin for government and its fallacies here - and maybe a part of the great but rude awakening of the Australian people as to how much and how far they've been ripped off.

    I see nothing but pain, blood and tears in the trail ahead, until this nation finds its feet again.
    22nd Jun 2017
    We must have an identical crystal ball as I - unfortunately - indeed see no other future than what you're painting.
    The longer we - collectively - wait to sort this out the more "BLOOD, GUTS & GORE" if is going to cost.
    The "Price of Freedom" is extremely high when it needs to be re-gained but rather low to maintain once achieved!
    22nd Jun 2017
    I'm a Grunt - out here you live or die. No middle ground... that might explain it....

    If these fools of both 'sides' (of what I call the Tag team) do NOT change their attitude and approach, they are dooming this nation to a civil war that will destroy it.

    They can keep feeding oppressed peoples into it, they can keep propping up lies with lies.. but the end result will be the same.

    A future war for survival for our children and grand-children.

    Now - I don't know about any of you that much - but my grandchildren are all intelligent, socially aware, and like their grandparents and parents, are worth something of value.

    I will fight, if I have to, to the death, to ensure that their real opportunities are made available to them from the efforts of their forebears, and are not just sublimated to some twerp's desire to enrich self and cronies.

    MY grand-children are worth more than that!
    23rd Jun 2017
    100 (& more) %
    ex PS
    25th Jun 2017
    I will drag out my Greens polish up the GP's and be there with you. Does anyone know where they keep the excess SLR's, maybe in a Museum?
    These idiots really think that people are willing to sacrifice their freedom for a perception of safety. The people haven't thought about what that really means, but when they do and they realize exactly what it entails there will be a revolt.
    25th Jun 2017
    ex PS
    I hope that the "Fabianistic Tactics" of gradual & Slow (but sustained) change has not "Irreversibly Programmed" people in general but especially the Younger Generation!

    Anyway - Count me in!!!!

    I'm going on a "Health Kick" at the moment just to ensure that I'm Coherent & Healthy enough to enjoy the "Time of reckoning" when (not if) it happens and to ensure that adequate punishment is administered to those who are (Knowingly & Willingly) taking this country towards "Self-Destruction".
    ex PS
    26th Jun 2017
    Just pulled out my old uniform, the only thing that fits is the Beret, bloody wife has shrunk everything. This never happened when i washed them.
    Sorry for the levity, I am not trying to make light of an insidious problem that is going to catch many people unawares, but it is fast becoming a situation where if you don't laugh you will bloody break down and cry.
    All I can say is, if this government is the answer for Retirees, it must have been a bloody stupid question to begin with.
    15th Dec 2019
    Bring on the election ASAP!! What kind of rubbish, heartkess ministers involved with robo debt have we got? Karma will get back at these dirty rotten scoundrels through the election. Those who voted Liberals deserved what they got and bring down the innocents with them! I loath Liberals with a passion including the gutless Scomo who won't put an end to it. The worst Governments Federal and State we've ever, ever had!!

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