​One-third of 'robo-debt' appeals set aside by tribunal

It was revealed during Senate Estimates that one-in-three 'robo-debt' appeals heard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal have been set aside.

It has been revealed this week that one in three appeals over Centrelink debts have been set aside by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

It was heard during Senate Estimates that since the Department of Human Services (DHS) kicked off its contentious data-matching process for welfare debt in mid-2016, the AAT has heard from 450 customers claiming error with their alleged debt.

In a statement from Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert on Friday, the co-deputy leader said that of the initial 450 customers that submitted first appeals with the tribunal, 416 cases had been decided.

265 of the appeals were left unchanged, 10 had been classed as varied, and 141 were set aside.

"For a third of debts to be set aside for those who had the courage to actually appeal should raise concerns about other debts. One in three is a significant amount to overturn," Siewert said.

"I for one have not forgotten that there are many Australians still receiving incorrect or false debts to their detriment, and urge those that receive debt notices to interrogate and challenge the debt."

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.

The Centrelink data-matching program of work 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 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," Siewert added on Friday.

"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".

In the federal government's 2018-19 Budget handed down last month, DHS was given further funding to extend the data-matching project.

"Income data matching activities between DHS and ATO will be extended to enhance the integrity of social welfare payments," the government said in its Budget documents.

"From 1 July 2021, DHS will continue to enhance the integrity of social welfare payments, by extending data matching activities with the Australian Taxation Office ... this measure builds on previous measures to improve welfare payment integrity, supporting these activities until 30 June 2022."

The government said it is expecting to achieve savings of AU$299.3 million over three years from 2019-20 by extending DHS' fraud detection and debt recovery activities thanks to combining with the Department of Social Services' efficiencies of AU$373.4 million by 2021-22.

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