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Government must abandon Centrelink’s Auto-Debt Recovery Program to prevent further harm

17 January 2017
ACOSS
Australian Council Of Social Services

In a statement today, ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said: “This error-riddled Auto-Debt Recovery Program must be stopped without further delay. The tweaks announced by the Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge do not address the fundamental problems and serious concerns expressed by us and a broad range of stakeholders.

“ACOSS met with Minister Tudge yesterday and again urged him to immediately halt Centrelink’s automated debt recovery program, which is operating as an aggressive abuse of government power, causing extensive stress, anxiety and harm amongst thousands of people caught up in the process.

“We also repeated our call for the Minister to convene a roundtable of key stakeholders and experts as soon as possible to design a humane and fair approach to debt recovery.

“Further disturbing allegations have been released today detailing glaring mistakes generated by the automated system. ACOSS also calls for an independent investigation into these allegations.”

ACOSS calls for: 

  • The immediate end of the automated data-matching program of debt detection and recovery, including existing debt recovery action that has arisen under this program. Planned automated debt-recovery programs for pensioners should also be halted.
  • The convening of a roundtable of key stakeholders and experts in social security to design a fair and humane approach to debt recovery.
  • An independent investigation into the auto-debt recovery program, including into allegations made by Centrelink staff about the problems with the program.
  • Adequate resourcing of Centrelink and community legal assistance services helping people with social security issues. Staffing cuts at Centrelink must be reversed.
  • Whistle-blower protections for Centrelink staff reporting poor administrative practices.

Key issues with the auto-debt recovery program include: 

  • The reversal of the onus of proof onto people receiving payments.
  • Failure to properly investigate the accuracy of automated data-matching.
  • Continuing debt recovery action where debts are being challenged.
  • Lack of human involvement in the detection and calculation of overpayments.
  • Requirement for people to gather evidence of their income from up to six years ago.
  • Automated debt recovery and deduction of amounts from people’s income support, without human intervention.
  • Inability of people to make contact and speak with a Centrelink staff member.

“There must be human involvement in the detection and calculation of debts. Without this step, many people will be paying back debts they do not owe, or paying a debt higher than what they owe.

“The Minister must listen to the individuals affected, the broader community and a wide range of stakeholders; and end the automated debt recovery program to prevent further harm,” said Dr Goldie.

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