Two Cashless Debit Card outages and nearly 21,000 Australians on welfare quarantine

The two outages were both experienced in December, with some people unable to see their account balance.

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The Department of Social Services (DSS) has revealed two instances of outages that affected those placed on a welfare quarantining system by the Australian government.

Referred to as "participants", those on the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) labelled as "racist" by senators previously, had access to their funds interrupted on two occasions in December.

For just under two hours on 22 December 2020, an outage saw 10 individuals not have their correct account balance displayed; and on 31 December 2020, a two-hour outage saw funds being dispersed into accounts while account balances were not updated, affecting 20 customers.

In response to questions taken on notice during Senate Estimates in May, DSS said the funds were still available for use.

DSS reported the two instances as the only outages experienced in the period spanning 1 January 2020 to 31 May 2021.

The CDC kicked off in 2016 as a trial. It aims to govern how those in receipt of welfare spend their money, with the idea being to both prevent the sale of alcohol, cigarettes, and some gift cards and block the funds from being used on activities such as gambling.

Participants of the CDC trial have 80% their funds placed on a card, which is managed by Indue, with the remaining 20% to be paid into a bank account.

As at 30 April 2021, 20,789 participants have been placed on the Cashless Debit Card since the program commenced in 2016. As at 30 April 2021, there were 5,963 individuals who resided outside of their original program region.

Total expenditure for the CDC in 2019-20 was AU$29.4 million. This comprised AU$14 million for Indue, AU$12 million labelled as departmental, about AU$1.5 million spent on evaluation, AU$370,000 on communications, and the remainder was spent on technology.

In March, Indue was afforded AU$26 million to expand the CDC scheme into the Northern Territory and Cape York.

As at 18 June 2021, there were 236 Cashless Debit Card participants living in the Northern Territory.

Also revealed in response to questions taken on notice, DSS said as at 30 April 2021, the total balance in participant's accounts is over AU$3.2 million. It said there are close to 13,500 open accounts, giving an average account balance of approximately AU$240.

In order to leave the welfare quarantining system, participants need to apply to Services Australia. As at 30 April 2021, there were 162 exit applications in progress with Services Australia. 29% of applications for exit had been received from those who identify as Indigenous and 12% of applications approved for an exit were from people who identify as Indigenous.

In May, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said he would scrap the CDC if Labor were to win the next federal election. Labor Senator for the Northern Territory Malarndirri McCarthy said scrapping the scheme would be an opportunity to "reset the whole conversation".

"The federal government's own report -- AU$2 million report -- has shown that it isn't working in regards to reducing violence, in regards to reducing gambling," she said at the time. "We have seen the long term ramifications here. It is not working.

"Of course, we're working towards, no doubt a cashless society, but let's hope we do that with genuine consultation with all Australians. When you impose a draconian piece of legislation on the most impoverished and disadvantaged Australians, that's not a choice."

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