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Centrelink automated debt recovery based on a 27-year-old process: Tudge

7 February 2017
Asha McLean
ZD Net

Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge has defended the issue-plagued Centrelink automated debt recovery system again, claiming the practice that has seen some letters demanding money repayment sent in error to welfare recipients has been in place for almost 27 years.

Addressing the House of Representatives on Tuesday, Tudge explained that the federal government has long fact-checked welfare recipients and that the process actually began back in 1990, when Labor introduced the Data Matching Act.

"We check the self reported income to Centrelink with the income data held with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and where there is a discrepancy between those two sets of data, an enquiry is made of the recipient as to why there might be a discrepancy," Tudge said. "[This process] has been around for a very long time."

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The minister's comments came in response to a suspension motion that was requested by Independent Member for Denison Andrew Wilkie on the grounds that the "crude" data matching process was taking a severe financial and emotional toll on citizens, amongst other concerns.

Wilkie called on Tudge to ensure that all Centrelink debt recovery activities moving forward are timely and accurate, and are conducted in a fair and humane manner; and that he convene, as a matter of urgency, an expert stakeholder roundtable to design a fair and humane system of debt detection and recovery.

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Wilkie condemned Tudge for "not only refusing to admit that there is a problem with the system, but also for insisting that the system will continue to operate despite it incorrectly targeting thousands of innocent Australians and its failure to treat people fairly and humanely".

Acting national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) Michael Tull recently asked Tudge to meet with union members employed at the Department of Human Services (DHS) to discuss why the Centrelink process was causing "extraordinary" stress in staff.

Speaking on behalf of the union representing public sector staff, Tull explained that DHS staff workload is so unmanageable thanks to the error rate in the letters, that they do not feel they can serve their fundamental role of helping those in need.

"People work at Centrelink because they want to help -- but the systems work so badly, and DHS is so understaffed, that they simply cannot," he said at the time. "The resulting reduction in safety for DHS workers and the public must be addressed without delay."

DHS announced in December it had implemented the online compliance system in July and said that it was finding approximately AU$4.5 million that had gone awry each day. With this, the federal government hopes to improve the nation's Budget by AU$2.1 billion over the next four years.

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Member for Melbourne Adam Bandt also highlighted the error rate in debt recovery letters, with the Greens representative calling out Tudge for underestimating the number of incorrect debt collection notices issued.

In a similar vain to Tudge, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the debt recovery system "quite appropriate".