Over 617,000 robo-debts raised since data-matching project's inception

The result of 1.16 million assessments initiated by the responsible department.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Services Australia has provided updated statistics on Centrelink's Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) -- robo-debt -- program, confirming that from 1 July 2016 through 31 August 2019 there had been 1,159,662 assessments initiated.

Services Australia and its predecessor, the Department of Human Services, over this period raised a total of 617,018 debts. One assessment can however lead to multiple debts if the recipient has been the beneficiary of different types of income support payments, the department said.

The information, revealed via questions on notice from the last round of Senate Estimates in October, also showed the average debt was AU$2,630.

There have been 9,511 formal reviews requested, with 8,412 completed.

Similarly, there have been 1,961 appeals requested and 1,644 of those completed.

The number of debts reduced to zero is 27,123, and the number of debts waived and/or written off permanently is 36,274. This figure was around 31,000 in May.

As at 31 August 2019, 299,907 people had more than one social welfare debt outstanding across all programs, inclusive of debts arising from the OCI program, Services Australia added.

It also revealed the number of "initiation letters" that were returned to the department.

"From 11 February 2017 to 31 August 2019, a total of 192,290 initiation letters had not been receipted by the customer," the department wrote.

Over the course of robo-debt, the Australian government has added a 10% debt recovery fee to 257,198 debts it believes are owed. 

Also provided on notice was further information regarding the department's data-matching activities with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to identify customers with an income discrepancy.

"Once the discrepancy is identified, the department applies a case selection methodology to exclude (permanently and temporarily) certain people," Services Australia wrote.

At the end of August 2019, there were approximately 470,000 customers with an income discrepancy in the past seven years who were excluded from the review process.

See also: Robo-debt: ATO relied on DHS data when garnishing tax returns

It was also revealed that at the end of August 2019, the number of OCI reviews with an outstanding debt balance for customers currently in receipt of the Age Pension was 456.

During Senate Estimates, the department was asked about an alleged debt from 25 years ago that it was pursuing.

"Services Australia has not been pursuing the customer for a 25 year old debt. The case referred to related to the updating of a customer's income stream details. It was not part of the income compliance program," it wrote.

"Information received from the customer's income stream provider showed that the commencement date of the income stream product was incorrect on the customer's record.

"When the customer's record was corrected, a letter was produced that erroneously stated the customer's small debt was incurred over a 24-year period. The actual debt was for a period of seven months in 2018-19."

This disclosure of this information followed the department admitting 515 instances where it believed a debt was owed, but the person was deceased. As a result, 442 were permanently written-off due to insufficient funds, and from the remaining 73, AU$225,406 was recovered.

Three of the 73 cases appealed the debt to an authorised review officer.

Services Australia also said that from 169 robo-debts issued between fiscal years 2016-17 and 2018-19 where the department issued the debt notices and later found the recipient had died, AU$50,391 was the total value of the debts.

It followed the department revealing that 271,224 robo-debts were paid without seeking a review.

It is not known if the customers were aware that they could request a review of the debt that was determined through the use of the automated income-matching system, which has since been paused by the Australian government.


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