The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) supports ACOSS’s call for immediate suspension of the Centrelink debt recovery program(link is external), until such a time that all issues can be rectified and convene a roundtable to work through how to redesign the system, citing significant risks that the program is harming Canberra residents who have at some time in the past accessed income support entitlements.
ACTCOSS Director Susan Helyar says that the government’s flawed system is causing unnecessary trauma and anxiety. It inappropriately puts all the risks of the flawed debt recovery approach on the shoulders of people who have received income support, many of whom live with significant vulnerability and face barriers to asserting their rights in complex, intimidating systems.
“The system assumes that individuals who are perceived to owe payments to Centrelink are guilty until proven innocent,” said Ms Helyar.
“ACTCOSS has written to Senator Zed Seselja (as our local Senator) to seek his support to suspend the debt recovery program. We have also asked him for more information about exactly how many people in the ACT have been caught up in the debt recovery program, how they have been assisted to resolve their individual matters and how any disputes have been dealt with.
“The Federal Government has left an algorithm to sort through hundreds of thousands of welfare payments. The algorithm doesn’t seem to be able to cope with either simple errors (misspelling an employer’s name) or intermittent work histories over a tax year.
“This program is flawed, it is creating errors and putting at risk the emotional and financial wellbeing of thousands of people. Community organisations have been responding to the confusion, fear and anger with this system by setting up a social media campaign which allows people to share their stories and raise awareness about the issue. The campaign uses the tag #notmydebt.
“ACTCOSS is very concerned that when people seek to rectify any errors with debts, the government has not put in place the necessary support staff to accommodate individuals concerns. As a result, individuals are becoming angry and traumatised from the whole experience.
“Centrelink supports people from all walks of life, this includes people with disability, retired pensioners, single mothers, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples, and job seekers. It also supports people who live with a mental illness. These individuals need a respectful, transparent and tailored response to their questions about and disputes with the debt recovery program.”
The National Social Security Rights Network has published information to support people to understand the debt recovery process and their rights: www.welfarerights.org.au/news/2017/1/9/new-factsheet-centrelink-online-debt-system(link is external).