The WA Council of Social Service, ACOSS and the other state and territory COSS’ are calling on the Australian Government to immediately suspend the automated Centrelink debt recovery program and for it to be independently reviewed.
Since July 2016, the Australian Government has ramped up the system for identifying possible fraud by cross-referencing data from Centrelink with other areas of government, principally employment data from the Australian Tax Office. The fully automated system, known as an Online Compliance Intervention System is examining records from up to six years ago. This new system is issuing 20,000 letters a week.
The COSS Network supports the principle of ensuring that people receive the right payments, but this process is needlessly causing anxiety among people who have done the right thing and reported their earnings. Overpayments are being raised and people are being asked to repay ‘debt’ without the proper checks to make sure that money is actually owed. Many recipients caught in the net are being asked to provide evidence of income from as far back as 2010.
WACOSS supports the call by ACOSS for the following actions:
- Immediate suspension of the automated debt collection system and review of cases where debts have been raised already under this system
- Government to meet with organisations representing/assisting those affected to redesign the system so that it’s accurate, fair, and doesn’t put undue stress on social security recipients
- The redesigned system should ensure that overpayments are correctly raised (the onus of proof should lie with Centrelink not the recipient), that no penalties or fees apply unless the person deliberately or recklessly provided false information, offer individual advice and assistance, and ensure that people in a vulnerable situation (for example, people with mental illness) are excluded from automated processing.
While neither WACOSS or ACOSS are equipped to provide individual advice, we suggest that anyone concerned about such a letter contact a welfare rights centre or a community legal centre. In addition, persons affected have the option to contact their local MP to make a formal complaint.
The National Welfare Rights Network are continually updating a factsheet on their website relating to this issue, explaining the meaning of the letter, how the online system works and where you can find help. Your front line staff may find this information extremely helpful when assisting clients.
Other sources of assistance include:
- Commonwealth Ombudsman - http://www.ombudsman.wa.gov.au/
Assists the public by investigating and resolving complaints about Government departments and agencies (and has launched an investigation into the automated debt recovery system).
- ACOSS also suggests that you contact your Local Member of Federal Parliament to let them know how this has affected you - http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/House_of_Representatives
- 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.
You can post your experiences with the new system here on Facebook or follow the hashtag #notmydebt on Twitter (which is independent of the COSS network). You can also post your stories on the Not My Debt site: http://www.notmydebt.com.au/
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