Australian government says Centrelink robo-debt will never log off

A recommendation to halt the robo-debt process has been rejected by the federal government.

The Centrelink automated debt recovery system will not be halted, the Australian government has stated in its response to the recommendations of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee handed down in June.

The government said it is appropriate to ask people when there are income discrepancies, and the Department of Human Services is in the process of writing to all debt-notice recipients, reminding them of their right to have the automated decision reviewed.

"There is no evidence to support the recommendation to put on hold the online system," the response said.

It was claimed that the government has a "strong commitment" to privacy, despite the office of Human Services Minister Alan Tudge handing private data of a person disputing their debt to a journalist in May.

In spite of the series of government IT disasters over the recent past -- including the Census bungle, ongoing ATO outages and SAN failure, as well as the robo-debt issues -- the government said it is undeterred from using digital channels.

"The Australian government will continue to invest in digital technologies to make government services simpler, faster, and more efficient, making it easier for the public to work and interact with government," the response said, which was tabled on September 28 and uploaded to government systems at the time, but only linked up to the committee site this week.

In its recommendations, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee asked that the reassessment of debts be performed by a team of Department of Human Services (DHS) officers who possess specialist knowledge of the Online Compliance Intervention program, and that they use accurate income data sourced from employers to do so.

The committee further asked that DHS assume full responsibility for calculating verifiable debts -- including manual checking -- relating to income support overpayments.

"What the robo-debt process does is shift the onus onto the client to prove their innocence, and that is unusual," the committee said.

The data-matching system had automatically compared the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office against income declared to Centrelink. When the system detected a disparity, Centrelink automatically issued a debt notice along with a 10 percent recovery fee.

One large error in the system was that it was incorrectly calculating a recipient's income, basing a recipient's fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

Between November 2016 and March 2017, at least 200,000 people were affected by the system. During this period, the department sent approximately 20,000 letters per week.

In its response, the government said the automated system had never been rolled out to vulnerable people.

"Vulnerable people have always been a priority for the Australian government," it said.

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