Centrelink debt fiasco must end immediately

11 January 2017

ACOSS calls on the Australian Government to immediately suspend the automated Centrelink debt recovery program that is treating current and past Centrelink recipients like second-class citizens. ACOSS also calls for the program to be independently reviewed.

Acting ACOSS CEO Peter Davidson said: “Centrelink has demonstrably failed in its duty of care to ensure accurate information is provided to recipients of income support and this failure is causing undue stress, anxiety and harm to some of our most vulnerable people.

“In December, we wrote to the Minister calling for the immediate suspension of the debt recovery program because of the systemic problems with the data-matching system.

“ACOSS does not oppose debt recovery action where overpayments have occurred. However, Centrelink must properly investigate overpayments rather than shift the onus of proof onto Centrelink recipients. This would not be accepted from a private creditor and it should not be accepted from a government agency assisting financially vulnerable people.

“To reach an arbitrary target of $4 billion in savings, the government has opted for an error-prone system. For every million dollars raised, it’s likely that hundreds of people are told to repay debts they don’t have and hundreds more are needlessly subjected to stress and anxiety.

“The government has a duty of care towards people who call on it for support, especially those on low incomes. It has breached that duty of care with this debt recovery program, which is why the program must cease in its current form to prevent further harm.

“We are hugely concerned that people are paying back debts that they do not owe because it is too hard to prove that they do not owe it. Where people have issues with the online portal, many cannot get through to Centrelink on the phone and are not receiving the help they need at Centrelink offices.

“To add insult to injury, a 10% recovery fee appears to be systematically applied to debts when it should only apply where people knowingly or recklessly give false information to Centrelink.

“Automated debt recovery action must be suspended, including against people who have already received letters. ACOSS repeats its call to Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge to meet with organisations representing and assisting Centrelink clients in the near future to redesign the program so that it is accurate, fair and humane.”

Media Contact: Charmaine Crowe 0419 626 155

While ACOSS is not equipped to provide individual advice, we suggest that people receiving these letters who are anxious or uncertain how to respond contact a welfare rights centre or free legal advice service for help. A list of welfare rights centres is here: http://www.welfarerights.org.au/organisations

The National Welfare Rights Network has published a fact sheet providing information about what to do if you have a received a debt letter here: http://www.welfarerights.org.au/news/2017/1/9/new-factsheet-centrelink-online-debt-system

Other sources of assistance include:

Legal Aid Commissions – http://www.nationallegalaid.org/  

Your local legal aid commission can give you information and advice.

Your local community legal centre – http://www.fclc.org.au/find_a_clc.php  

Provides legal information and advice. Most services are free.

Commonwealth Ombudsman – www.ombudsman.gov.au/

Assists the public by investigating and resolving complaints about Government departments and agencies (and is undertaking its own investigation of the automated debt collection system)

Your Local Member of Federal Parliament – http://www.aph.gov.au/Senators_and_Members/Members

Lifeline 13 11 14 – a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.

People affected can also register their concerns on social media using either http://www.notmydebt.com.au/ or on twitter at #notmydebt