A Senate inquiry has called for Centrelink’s controversial automated debt recovery system to be suspended until its many flaws can be resolved.
The inquiry released its report on Wednesday night, which made 21 recommendations for fixing the robo-debt system.
The inquiry has urged all debts calculated using the error-prone “income averaging” process to be reassessed. It also called for a redesign of the system with a robust risk assessment process.
The inquiry began hearings in March, and its chair, Greens senator Rachel Siewert, said it had exposed serious flaws in the system.
“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,” Siewert said after the report’s release.
“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.”
The Department of Human Services used the inquiry to highlight the changes it had made to the system, which it said had largely resolved the problems. But others say the changes don’t go far enough.
The Australian Council of Social Service chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said on Wednesday said the system is unworkable and must be abolished.
Anglicare Australia released a similar statement on Wednesday, saying the system has unfairly shifted the onus of disproving debts onto vulnerable Australians.
Its executive director, Kasy Chambers, urged the government to pay heed to the significant evidence the inquiry heard about the hardship caused by the system.
“The shift in the onus of proof onto recipients, the barriers to people trying to fix these problems through the Centrelink system, and the growing stigmatisation of welfare, is a step towards the criminalisation of poverty and disadvantage,” Chambers said.
“Let’s suspend this failing system and work together to design one that works for people – not just the government,” she said.
The system was introduced in July but began in earnest in September, and issued about 220,000 letters in the five months to February.
Almost half of the debts raised between July and March were referred to private debt collectors.