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Centrelink faces sustained criticism over its new automated debt recovery system

Low-income Australians receiving housing support and other welfare services have joined summer criticism of Centrelink, as the agency faces sustained questions about its new automated debt recovery processes.

Welfare recipients who received debt demands for thousands of dollars during the Christmas and New Year period have questioned new automated data-matching systems introduced in July, a key tool as the federal government pursues efforts to recover millions in unnecessary welfare costs.

Labor last week joined calls for the automated debt-recovery methods to be halted or scrapped. Changes to compliance processes see welfare records matched with other government data, including reported income information collected by the Australian Tax Office.

A new "Not My Debt" social media campaign has seen dozens of recipients of letters of demand highlight examples of Centrelink seeking repayment of thousands of dollars for a range of welfare services, including disability support pensions and Youth Allowance, despite recipients being eligible for the payments.

Queensland rent assistance recipient Marissa Johnson told Fairfax Media Centrelink staff had blamed random computer checks for her payments being suspended after her partner moved into the home, meaning she had to provide a hard copy of her lease agreement for the second time in two months despite no changes to the documents. 

The Rockhampton resident received back payments after she provided the documents to a local Centrelink office, where the couple met at least one other person dealing with the same problem.

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"Without getting a letter asking for information or an explanation, my rent assistance was cancelled on December 23 and when I went in about it, they said the computer tells them they need to ask the person for all their information again," she said. 

"This has happened now, but I lived in my previous house for four-and-a-half years and I was asked probably three or four times to update my information, even though I hadn't moved."

Ms Johnson said she received about $170 a fortnight in rent assistance and the loss of the payment had the potential to cause serious hardship. 

"Unfortunately I am getting used to these problems," she said. 

Brisbane resident Luana Latham told of making dozens of attempts to lodge an online form to request early release of her superannuation funds to pay for a necessary operation next month, but the system repeatedly failed over more than two weeks.

"I am entitled to apply for early release of my super to pay for the cost of the surgery . . . but it's all done online. You can't send in a physical form because they've moved all the processes to a new system and it fails every time," she said. 

"They process the application and you get a decision in 28 days but with my operation coming up, I want to get it sorted out beforehand." 

Centrelink staff told Ms Latham only to keep trying with the online form, while one suggested she push back her surgery date. 

"It should be automatic and simple. I understand systems go down, but this has been weeks - and it's accessing my own money, not pension payments or anything," she said. 

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge is on leave, but Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen said last week the government had confidence in the online compliance systems.

"Over 70 per cent of people who received an online compliance letter since September this year have completely resolved the matter," he said.

"Only 2.2 per cent of customers were requested to supply supporting documentation, which means 97.8 per cent of customers did not need to supply supporting documentation.

"The department is determined to ensure that people get what they are entitled to, nothing more, nothing less."

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