Centrelink's automated debt recovery system working 'incredibly well': Minister Christian Porter
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Centrelink's automated debt recovery system working 'incredibly well': Minister Christian Porter

The federal government says Centrelink's controversial new automated debt recovery methods are working "incredibly well" and only attracting a tiny number of complaints, while recovering about $300 million in taxpayer funds since July.

Low-income Australians have reported receiving letters of demand for thousands in recalculated welfare debts in the Christmas and New Year period as the agency's new compliance system data matches income information with other government records, including at the Australian Taxation Office.

Labor, Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and social service organisations have called on the government to halt or close the system, which tells Centrelink clients to repay debts where discrepancies between entitlements and money paid out over recent years are identified.

On Tuesday, Social Services Minister Christian Porter defended the system and said of 169,000 review letters sent since July, only 0.16 per cent had resulted in complaints.

As Christian Porter points out, if we let people get away with these things, you could be kissing goodbye to hundreds of millions of dollars.

As Christian Porter points out, if we let people get away with these things, you could be kissing goodbye to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Photo: Andrew Meares
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Speaking on ABC radio, Mr Porter would not say how many recipients had challenged the debt amounts demanded by Centrelink and said recipients concerned about debt demands should seek more information.

"These are not debt letters. These are letters that use automated cross-referencing information from the ATO to information received at Centrelink, which shows there might be a discrepancy," he said.

"The complaint rate is running at 0.16 per cent. That's only 276 complaints from those 169,000 letters. That process has raised $300 million worth of money back to the taxpayer which was overpaid.

"From what we've seen in a high volume system it's actually working incredibly well."

Centrelink has defended its new debt recovery processes in recent weeks.

Centrelink has defended its new debt recovery processes in recent weeks.

Photo: Fairfax Media

Mr Porter criticised Labor and opposition human services spokeswoman Linda Burney for calls for the system to be shut down on a temporary or permanent basis, saying the opposition had no specific data about the number of complaints or levels of mistakes generated by the data matching.

"The question is not whether or not this system is working - it absolutely is working - the question is why on earth did Labor leave us with a situation where we're having to recoup $4 billion worth of non-compliance over payments?" he said.

"You have a responsibility to ensure that the information about your assets and your income that is provided is accurate.

"If, even several years later, through our best endeavours of cross matching information that you've given to the ATO with information that you've given to Centrelink, we think there was a problem, we will have to ask you about that," Mr Porter said.

Last week the Human Services Department said 72 per cent of clients who received letters of demand since September had resolved their cases online, while only 2.2 per cent were asked to provide supporting documentation about their income or assets.

Ms Burney said on Monday she had written to the government to outline an "enormous number of complaints".

On Tuesday, she used social media to say MPs who were in touch with their constituents during the Christmas period couldn't be mistaken that there was a problem.

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"Get it right before threatening people - not that hard," Ms Burney wrote on Twitter.

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Tom McIlroy

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for the Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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