Services Australia has a JobKeeper data exchange arrangement with the ATO

Because the last time the department pulled information from Australian Taxation Office systems worked so well.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Services Australia has a data exchange program underway with the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) that flags people who are on the federal government's JobKeeper scheme.

"There are some people who haven't declared JobKeeper payments as income on their record," Services Australia deputy CEO, customer service delivery Michelle Lees said.

"Based on the data exchange information, we're aware there are approximately 135,000 people who were receiving a social security payment who were identified by an employer as being eligible for JobKeeper. It doesn't necessarily mean, in some instances when we contact them, they might actually say they haven't received a JobKeeper payment, whereby we'd refer that back to the ATO to follow up."

Lees said in the event that there was a recalculation of entitlement required, because someone has updated their details, the program could flag that there was a provisional debt.

"The data matching helps us to identify where there are discrepancies and it just prompts us to take further action in terms of gathering additional information ... Single Touch Payroll data helps us to identify certain discrepancies or allows us to confirm, similarly with the JopKeeper, it's really to highlight there might be something wrong here, we need to look at it further rather than using that data in and of itself."

"It is our purpose here to try to support people to make sure that they don't end up in a debt situation and that's why we've taken such a proactive approach using the data exchange to support us there," Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner added.

See also: Centrelink's new data-matching approach to avoid robo-debt 2.0

Services Australia faced hours-long questioning over its contentious robo-debt income averaging scheme on Thursday night, this time coming up against a line of questioning on evidence that is expected to be used in the upcoming class action.

After previously accusing the department of covering up the mess that was the Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) scheme, colloquially known as robo-debt, Labor Senator Deborah O'Neill questioned representatives on why decisions made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) were not appealed by Services Australia.

"I want to know how it could be that 76 decisions that are being used in this case now to show that the AAT was onto this, didn't trigger a response from the department? … If you wanted to cover up the fact that the AAT was finding that robo-debt scheme was unlawful over and over again, one way of hiding it from the Australian public would be not to appeal any of those decisions," O'Neill asked department representatives during Senate Estimates on Thursday night.

"If the AAT continued to send rulings back to the department that said, 'Hold on, you're not allowed to do this', someone adhering to the [Australian Public Service] values and code of conduct would go, 'Hold on, we're not supposed to be doing this'. It's not just one occasion … it's a systemic issue that was emerging."

O'Neil then asked the department why it did not appeal all of the decisions if Centrelink thought robo-debt was legal.

Liz Bundy from the department's OCI Taskforce said it was not unusual for the department to not appeal decisions made by the AAT.

"When the AAT sets aside a decision it can be for a whole range of reasons … simply because a decision is set aside, I don't think we accept that that means that the original decision was necessarily an error … there were decisions that affirmed the use of averaging," she said.

Bundy said each case is taken on its individual merit.

"Did it not trigger a systemic response when you have an overturning of a department decision by the AAT that says it is not consistent with the requirements of the legislation -- isn't that a fireworks moment in your department, where you go, 'Oh my god, oh my god, we're not complying with the law' … isn't that the moment at which you would immediately cease the practice?," O'Neill continued.

O'Neill continued her questioning into the night, asking current and former staff of the department to come forth and detail the "cover up" if they had not made a claim under the Public Interest Disclosure Act. 

The Department of Human Services, now Services Australia, kicked off the data-matching program of work in 2016, which saw the automatic issuing of debt notices to those in receipt of welfare payments through Centrelink. 

From 1 July 2016 through 31 August 2019, Centrelink's OCI program saw 1,159,662 assessments be initiated using the automated data-matching technique.

In May, the government admitted it got around 470,000 "debts" issued under the OCI initiative wrong, and that it was refunding an estimated AU$721 million back to Australians who paid.

See also: Robo-debt: Minister claims the government is not built for refunds

Refunds begun in July, and as of 26 October 2020, the total amount refunded was AU$697 million, accounting for 94% of all refunds that are due. This total was for 489,671 debts. 402,000 people received a refund or had debt reduced to zero. Zero could mean the customer never paid the debt notice in the first place, Bundy explained.

28,000 still need to be processed. 

Approximately 14,600 people are yet to receive their refund as they have not updated their banking information with the department.

3,300 deceased customers are eligible for a refund, and there are some customers currently in prison, on a debt agreement with the government, or require another element of "more care" that the department is dealing with on a manual basis.

There are 1,760 customers on the government's Cashless Debit Card (CDC) scheme or that are being "income managed" by Centrelink that have received a refund or had their debt zeroed.

1,620 were provided a refund of money that went into their bank accounts, not the CDC.

AU$30,072 was the highest, single refund given to a consumer on the CDC scheme.

When the pilot program for what became known as the OCI initiative kicked off, Secretary of the Department of Social Services Kathryn Campbell said she believed it was lawful.

"At that time, I was the Secretary of the Department of Human Services when we were doing this proposal, the Department of Social Services had been the policy entity and they had advised us that it was legal," she said.

Campbell in July said the agency apologised for "any hurt or harm" caused by the OCI initiative and that the government was focused on applying the lessons learned in the future.


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