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Centrelink's robo-debt system scrutinised by national audit office

22 February 2017
Christopher Knaus
The Guardian

Centrelink’s controversial debt recovery system has been scrutinised in a soon-to-be-released report by the Australian National Audit Office.

Stories continue to emerge of drastic errors with the system, including one that targeted a former Australian of the Year Queensland finalist, the medical researcher Janet Hammill. 

Hammill said her $6,700 “debt” was last week reduced to zero after she spoke out about her treatment, prompting the intervention of her local member.

“My concerns now are for those who have not been able to make their situations with Centrelink heard,” she told Guardian Australia.

The audit office last month rejected a specific request from Labor’s Linda Burney to investigate the robo-debt system, after repeated complaints that it was saddling vulnerable Australians with bogus debts.

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The audit has examined whether “sound processes and practices” were established to support the implementation and design of the compliance and fraud-prevention budget measures.  It also investigated whether the government has actually achieved savings from the measures, and whether their effectiveness was being properly monitored.

The report is complete and is due to be tabled in February.

The only suggestion of the audit’s findings has come from the Department of Human Services. 

The department’s general manager for communications, Hank Jongen, said last week that independent audits into the debt recovery system showed it was “generally effective” in detecting discrepancies. The department subsequently referred a request for the release of those audits to the national audit office.

Anger over the system continues to put senior ministers under pressure, including the attorney general, George Brandis, who prompted laughter on Q&A on Monday night by suggesting anyone with concerns could simply contact Centrelink.

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A range of welfare organisations, unions, politicians and lobby groups continue to call for an immediate end to the automate debt recovery system.

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union is holding a meeting as part of its “dignity not debt” campaign on Thursday night, designed to bring together those opposed to the system. 

The public meeting, to be held at Trades Hall in Melbourne, will help attendees fight Centrelink debts and write submissions to the Senate inquiry. 

The Senate inquiry will hold public hearings in early March.