Human Services has wiped over 26,000 'robo-debts'

Additionally, 15,000 debts have also been reduced to zero.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Department of Human Services (DHS) has disclosed wiping, or writing-off, 26,104 Centrelink debts raised through its contentious data-matching project, since July 2016.

Additionally, 14,621 debts have been reduced to zero.

DHS confirmed the statistics in response to Senate Estimates Questions on Notice, noting that a permanent write-off may also occur in some cases where the recipient is deceased or has been declared bankrupt, and not just where DHS got it wrong.

In total, the department had initiated 925,728 assessments, and raised 409,572 debts from July 1, 2016, through to October 31, 2018. The average debt, the department said, was AU$2,184.

DHS noted, however, that one assessment can lead to multiple debts if the recipient has been the beneficiary of different types of income support payments.

Of the 5,139 formal reviews requested, 4,952 have been completed.

In 2016, DHS kicked off the data-matching program of work that saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through the country's Centrelink scheme.

The Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program automatically compares the income declared to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) against income declared to Centrelink, resulting in debt notices -- along with a 10 percent recovery fee -- subsequently being issued when a disparity in government data was detected.

One large error in the system 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.

A department spokesperson, however, told ZDNet in October it is inaccurate to say the automated system that came to be known colloquially as "robo-debt" had incorrectly issued debt notices.

"It is inaccurate to say that the system automatically issued debt notices. Letters initiated at the commencement of a compliance review are not debt letters. To refer to them as debt letters is factually incorrect. The letter asks the customer to engage online or call the department to work through a discrepancy," the spokesperson said.

"Last year the Commonwealth Ombudsman confirmed that: It was reasonable and appropriate for the department to ask people to explain data matching discrepancies; the online system accurately calculates debts when the required information is entered; the business rules in the online compliance system that support the debt calculation are comprehensive and accurately capture the legislative and policy requirements; and debts raised are consistent with the previous manual debt investigation process."

DHS acting deputy secretary of Integrity and Information Jason McNamara told the Finance and Public Administration References Committee something similar in March, saying the data-matching program went well.

"The department's view would be, we wouldn't agree with the proposition that it didn't go that well," McNamara said with no hesitation.

"Yeah ... We've made it quite clear that we think the project has gone quite well. We've delivered lots of savings. We have quite a number of reviews already undertaken and we have changed some aspects of the system, we've improved aspects of the system but I don't think we'd agree with the proposition that the project hasn't gone well."


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