Labor urges government to stop 'robo-debt' again

The Coalition has held firm on continuing the program it says has clawed back AU$1.9 billion from Australia's most vulnerable.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The federal opposition has once again asked the Australian government to shutter its Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program that aims to claw back money welfare recipients were already paid through Centrelink.

The plea follows revelations that Centrelink continued to pursue an alleged debt against a man with a disability that had passed away through its data-matching program of work, known as "robo-debt".

"The government's robo-debt scheme is so seriously malfunctioning it must be scrapped," a statement from former Labor leader and now Shadow Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said.

"We recognise the right of government to recoup legitimate debts that are owed. But robo-debt is not that, it is a mess."

DHS has been automatically issuing debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through Centrelink since 2016.

The 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% recovery fee -- subsequently being issued when a disparity in government data is 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.

"The computerised calculation is claiming false debts that when challenged have led to more than 100,000 claims being changed. (The inaccuracies not only relate to the amount of money owed but have extended to clients' student histories)," Shorten's statement continued.

"The operation of that computerised calculation has little to no human oversight. Centrelink officers act to enforce the debt number but apparently do not check that it is correct."

See also: Human Services has spent AU$375m on 'robo-debt'  

The plea from Shorten follows Labor in April promising prior to the 2019 election that any Commonwealth automation initiatives under its control would be undertaken with close human supervision.

"Recipients of debt notices are given no evidence or detail of how the figure claimed is arrived at," the shadow minister continued.

"Robo-debt is not just inaccurate. It is being enforced in a harsh and cruel way and we now know it is being driven from above."

Pointing to a report from The Age, Shorten said lawyers for the Department of Human Services admitted in court on Friday the government agency got it "wrong", as the legality of the whole robo-debt scheme faces scrutiny in two Federal Court actions.

"Robo-debt is inaccurate, harsh, and unfair. It is a system that is malfunctioning and the minister needs to go back to the drawing board," Shorten said. "He should no longer ignore the trail of human heartache that is occurring in robo-debt's wake."

Labor has been asking for the data-matching project to be halted since reports emerged in early 2017 on what exactly the government department was doing.

It also continued to ask it be paused when it was revealed robo-debt caused anxiety, fear, and humiliation, and reportedly even resulted in suicide.  

Labor leader Anthony Albanese, meanwhile, said in a statement that debts are continually being raised incorrectly, and the system needed to be stopped.

"100% of my local constituency -- came to my office with robot-debt concerns and had their debts either fully scrapped, or reduced. 100% were mistakes. The fact is, that this is a scam from the government in order to try to get money from people who don't actually owe that money," he said.

"We always encourage people, if in doubt, [to] call up" Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert said in response, speaking on ABC 7.30 on Monday night.

Robert said the government has claimed AU$1.9 billion as a result of robo-debt, saying there is a responsibility to do that.

"If citizens just keep their income up to date and if there's any questions, contact the department, I think we can avoid many of these issues," he said in direct response to a question regarding the passing away of a welfare recipient whose family was confronted with his debt after death.

See also: Services Australia has six weeks to work out what exactly it's meant to do

Robert in October was found to have spent 20 times more than other MPs on his home internet, clocking up more than AU$2,000 a month and blaming "connectivity issues" for the high costs.

He was asked if he received a detailed explanation of why he owed money and why that luxury couldn't be extended to other taxpayers.

"When a discrepancy notice is sent out to people, the first thing they'll receive is a notice to say, 'Hey, we believe there's a discrepancy, please contact us' and that's what we want them to do, we want them to actually contact the department so a sensible conversation can be had," he said.

"There's a legal requirement upon us to ensure that our highly targeted welfare system has the right people getting the right money."

"The best form of welfare is a job," the minister added.

While the Coalition claims AU$1.9 billion in returned funds, the program has cost AU$375 million so far, but has only recovered a little over AU$326 million in overpayments, while at least 31,000 debt claims have been wiped.

Human Services has also detailed a new data-matching project, this time concerned with Medicare fraud. It will be identifying individuals that have a "high likelihood of fraudulent behaviour".


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