Public sector union to use Centrelink Senate inquiry to highlight departmental 'dysfunction'

The Community and Public Sector Union plans to shine a light on the 'dysfunction' present at the Department of Human Services during a Senate inquiry into the Centrelink 'robo' letter debacle.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has said its members will use the Senate inquiry into the Centrelink automated debt recovery debacle to reveal the full extent of "dysfunction" in the Department of Human Services (DHS).

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert will chair the investigation after the Australian Senate passed a motion on Wednesday to initiate an inquiry into the system that has some seen letters demanding money repayment sent in error to welfare recipients.

CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said members of the union that are employed by DHS at Centrelink are looking forward to the inquiry so they can shine a light on what has caused the "shameful robo-debt crisis".

"The Department of Human Services has been far more concerned with gagging its staff and fudging its performance indicators than fixing this mess, so this is an important opportunity for staff to speak openly about how things have gone so wrong and their suggestions to maintain the integrity of our welfare system without the unnecessary collateral damage," Flood said.

"Our members were warning for months that this automated debt system would not work, but this is an agency where the bosses don't listen to their staff. The situation has highlighted the dysfunctional workplace culture across this agency, and the damage caused by years of budget cuts and the 5,000 jobs that have been slashed."

DHS announced in December it had implemented the online compliance system in July and said it was finding approximately AU$4.5 million that had gone awry each day. With this, the federal government hopes to improve the nation's Budget by AU$2.1 billion over the next four years.

The new system automatically compares the income people declare to the Australian Taxation Office against income declared to Centrelink. When it detects a disparity, Centrelink automatically issues a debt notice and that debt comes with a 10 percent recovery fee.

One large error in the Centrelink system is that it was incorrectly calculating a recipient's income, basing a recipient's fortnightly pay on their annual salary rather than taking a cumulative 26-week snapshot of what an individual was paid.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the debt recovery system "quite appropriate" and said it boils down to the fact that the government has an obligation to ensure that Australia's "very extensive and generous" social welfare system is allocated correctly.

"Centrelink has a responsibility where it identifies a discrepancy between what the recipient has reported and what the employer has reported to seek an explanation and that is what is being done," he said.

"The letters that go out in the first instance are simply saying, there is a discrepancy: 'Your employer is saying you earned this, you say you earned that, can you explain what that discrepancy is' -- and that is entirely responsible and appropriate."

Although the focus of the inquiry will be centred on the automated system, CPSU said it will be encouraging senators to examine wider agency, in particular the impact it is having on staff and customers.

"Australians are finding it harder and harder to get the help they need and they are waiting longer to have their claims dealt with. It's a disgrace that 36 million phone calls to DHS went unanswered last year alone and that staff have gone more than three years without a pay rise as they've fought to hold on to critical workplace rights and conditions," Flood added.

The Senate will investigate the design, scope, cost-benefit analysis, contracts awarded, as well as the implementation associated with the better management of the overall social welfare system.

In particular, the impact on welfare recipients, the administration and management of customer records, the capacity of DHS -- including online, telephone, and service centres -- to cope with the complaint demand, the adequacy of Centrelink's complaint and review process, and the process involved in awarding contracts related to the debt recovery system will be probed by Siewert and company.

Additionally, the data-matching performed between Centrelink and the ATO and the error rate in the letters issued to recipients will be looked into.

It will also look into Centrelink's Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) and its compliance with debt collection guidelines and Australian privacy and consumer laws.

This is expected to include questioning the impact the OCI has had on department staff, particularly whether there are enough staff to handle the workload.

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