'Robo-debt' to face fresh Senate inquiry

The Greens motion to send Centrelink's compliance program to another inquiry was agreed to by the Senate.

The federal government's contentious Centrelink data-matching project is set to be put under the microscope, with the Senate on Wednesday agreeing to a motion put forward by the Greens requesting an inquiry into "robo-debt".

"It's been more than two years since I chaired the first hearing of the Senate inquiry into the notorious robo-debt program," Australian Greens spokesperson on Family and Community Services Senator Rachel Siewert said.

"We heard a lot of evidence. There were nine hearings across Australia, and what will always stick with me, is that at every hearing, we heard about the impacts of the program."

Siewert said that despite what had emerged throughout the hearings, the government failed to implement a key recommendation the Senate community affairs committee had made, which was to suspend the program.

"Instead, the government ramped it up," she continued. "To this day, people continue to be pursued."

The motion follows the federal opposition on Tuesday asking the government once again to put an end to its Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program that aims to claw back money welfare recipients were already paid through Centrelink.

Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert responded to pleas to stop the program by saying that the government has a lawful responsibility to collect "where citizens have mismatched what they said they'd earn versus what, through their tax return, they've been shown to earn."

See also: Why Australia is quickly developing a technology-based human rights problem (TechRepublic) 

The Department of Human Services (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.

DHS in March last year 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 reportedly even resulted in suicide.  

According to Robert, across Australia, as at 30 June 2019, there are 1.54 million outstanding social welfare debts he claims have a value just shy of AU$5 billion.

While the Coalition claims AU$1.9 billion has been returned funds thanks to robo-debt, 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.

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese asked Robert during Question Time on Tuesday when the government was finally going to admit that its robo-debt experiment has failed.

"The government has a lawful requirement to recover debts that Australians owe ... debts are raised either on income support -- there's approximately 13 income support payments -- and income compliance goes across eight of them. And then there is family benefit debts. Together, those debts equal AU$4.99 million," Robert said in response.

"To give the House an idea, with family tax benefit debts, there are 373,712 outstanding at AU$1.3 billion; when it comes to Newstart, there are 408,895 debts equalling AU$1.121 billion -- does the leader of the opposition seriously want the government to wipe AU$1.121 billion from 408,000 debts because the member doesn't believe in income compliance?"

Ahead of the May federal election, Labor had promised it would conduct all government data-matching activities with a human eye if it was elected, instead of wiping them.

"Governments of all persuasions over the last 20-plus years have sought to recover debts that have arisen because citizens have put forward an assessment of their income and when their tax return came through, that was different, and that difference has to be accounted for. That's the mutual obligation that citizens have with their government," Robert said.

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.  

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