The push to automate Centrelink services is causing mental stress and burdening the community sector, a report from Anglicare Australia has said.
The report, Paying the price of welfare reform, studied the impact of Centrelink automation on Anglicare staff and clients across southern Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia.
"Our research found that people are falling through the cracks as Centrelink services become more and more automated," Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers said. "It is becoming harder to talk to a human being."
She said staff in Centrelink service centres directed people to phones and computers, rather than offering help, while at the same time people reported spending hours waiting on the phone only to get cut off.
"Centrelink might believe that it's saving time and money, but what it's really doing is shifting the burden onto its clients and the services that help them," Chambers continued.
Two thirds of Anglicare's workers said the automated processes increased the amount of support clients needed because they were stressed and anxious.
While Centrelink says the average waiting time for employment hotlines is 30 minutes, Anglicare clients reported waiting on the phone for hours with high rates of disconnection and abandonment.
Centrelink data from the past year showed 33 million calls went unanswered and 55 million callers got an engaged signal.
The study found over a period of a fortnight, regional Anglicare organisations spent the equivalent of almost seven full-time jobs dealing just with Centrelink issues, wasting more than AU$400,000 a year.
The Department of Human Services (DHS)-led welfare agency is still in hot water for its contentious data-matching process for welfare debt recovery, which saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments.
The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program had automatically compared the income people declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, and the debt notice -- along with a 10 percent recovery fee -- was subsequently issued when a disparity in government data was detected.
One large error in the system dubbed "robo-debt" was that it was incorrectly calculating a recipient's income, basing fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.
DHS in March told a Finance and Public Administration References Committee that its data-matching program went well because it produced savings, but this ignored claims from individuals the OCI system had caused them feelings of anxiety, fear, and humiliation, and that dealing with the system had been an incredibly stressful period of their lives.
"This has caused immense stress to Australians who have accessed the social safety net and had to go back and prove a debt was not owed, often having to find paperwork from years ago to prove innocence," Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said earlier this month.
"The government must abandon the automated debt recovery robo-debt program and must reinstate human oversight when it comes to checking debts potentially owed to Centrelink."
It was revealed earlier this month that one in three appeals over Centrelink debts have been set aside by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
Since the data matching process for welfare debt began, the AAT has heard from 450 customers claiming error with their alleged debt. Of those 450 customers, 416 cases had been decided, with 265 of the appeals left unchanged, 10 classed as varied, and 141 set aside.
A DHS spokesperson told ZDNet that as part of a data matching review, people are "given ample opportunity to explain their circumstances prior to determining whether there is a debt".
"Importantly, the opportunity for the person to provide information and seek a reassessment remains open," they said. "Where a debt is reassessed, it does not necessarily mean that the original decision was incorrect, as that decision was based on information available at the time."
According to the department, those that took their debt to the AAT were able to provide "fresh evidence", that is to say evidence that wasn't available to DHS, despite it still feeling appropriate to issue the debt notices.
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