The federal government’s contentious $4 billion Centrelink debt clawback will face scrutiny after Labor and the Greens succeeded in their push for a senate inquiry.
The Senate Community Affairs References Committee will examine the flawed data matching process – which Human Services Minister Alan Tudge earlier revealed had an error rate of 20 per cent – and look at the Department’s response to complaints about it.
Another key task of the inquiry will be to assess the impact of the fraud crackdown on benefit recipients, including students, families, seniors, jobseekers and people with disabilities, some of which has been detailed in personal stories on sites such as Get Up!
Senators will also look at how the Department managed the Online Compliance Intervention (OCI), what kind of risk assessment was done and whether DHS threw enough resources at it, as well as the impact on staff of increased customer aggression generated by it.
The Committee’s full terms of reference are broad and include:
- The error rates of debt notices, when these were identified and action taken to remedy this
- Centrelink’s complaints and review process – The government’s response to concerns raised by affected individuals, Centrelink and departmental staff, community groups and parliamentarians
- How well DHS staff and systems have coped with higher levels of demand since the compliance program began
- The adequacy of data matching Centrelink and ATO information
- Contracts related to the debt collection system and how these were awarded
- Whether the debt recovery scheme complies with debt collection guidelines and Australian privacy and consumer laws
- How well the department managed the workload of the OCI, including the impact of the roll out and subsequent complaints on staff; staff training; the adequacy of IT and telephone systems; what risk analysis was done and feedback from staff from system testing
- The impact of the debt collection process on the elderly, job seekers, students, families and people with disabilities
- The administration and management of customers’ records by Centrelink
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) is hoping that the inquiry reveals “the full extent of dysfunction with the policy and more broadly in the Department of Human Services (DHS)”.
The union has spent three years attempting to renegotiate a new enterprise agreement for Human Services’ staff with little success.
Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support workers will commence six days of targeted industrial action on February 13th, 15th, 17th, 20th, 22nd and 24th in protest at the robo-debt crisis and the stalled Australian Public Service enterprise bargaining process.
CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said the scheme had so far resulted in “tens of thousands of Australians” being wrongly hounded for money they either didn’t owe.
“Our members working in Centrelink are looking forward to this inquiry so they can shine a light on what’s caused this shameful robo-debt crisis and what should be done from here,” Ms Flood said.
“This debt program has been terrible for the more than 200,000 ordinary Australians who’ve been sent letters, but also for hardworking staff.”
Ms Flood said the DHS had done a hatchet job on its staff, rather than face its own shortcomings.
“The Department of Human Services has been far more concerned with gagging its staff and fudging its performance indicators than fixing this mess, so this is an important opportunity for staff to speak openly about how things have gone so wrong and their suggestions to maintain the integrity of our welfare system without the unnecessary collateral damage.”
Claims have surfaced from staff that they were told to direct anxious claimants querying their debt away from Centrelink offices and online instead.
“The culture has changed from trying to assist customers to avoiding assisting customers,” said one. “Customers are disgruntled and desperate for guidance, staff are disgruntled and stressed.”
Another staff member alleged: “It is interesting that the official line is still that face-to-face service is available as requested. Good luck with that. Of course, should there be a friend of the manager or an MP request, they do get the service that should be provided to every customer.”
But Mr Tudge has repeatedly denied there are problems with the system. He told 2GB’s Warren Moore on January 26 that “in most cases there is a very clear overpayment, and most people do have to pay that money back.”
DHS spokesperson Hank Jongen has laid the blame for system failure on staff, saying some staff “do not welcome technology driven change” and are only happy when they can micro manage benefit claims.
Ms Flood said she hoped senators would look at the wider problems in the agency and the impact that was having on staff and customers.
“Our members were warning for months that this automated debt system would not work, but this is an agency where the bosses don’t listen to their staff. The situation has highlighted the dysfunctional workplace culture across this agency, and the damage caused by years of budget cuts and the 5,000 jobs that have been slashed.”
The Greens spokesperson on community issue Senator Rachel Siewert labelled the government’s automated debt recovery system “a disaster” and said the inquiry would be uncomfortable for a government who refused to back down or explain.
“The inquiry will enable those who have been affected to have a voice and to tell us how they have been affected,” Ms Siewert said.
“The lack of human oversight, the onus of proof being on the recipient, the catalogue of experiences by struggling Australians who have been told they have a debt when they do not, the failing infrastructure that means people can’t get through to Centrelink on the phone and the website, all of this must be explained now in a senate hearing.”
She said no stone would go unturned.
“This inquiry will assess the impact on Australians, and how much capacity was given to Centrelink services to cope with the program, we will look at advice given to Centrelink staff, how many debt notices were in error. I hope this provides answers to thousands of struggling Australians”.
The committee is due to report on May 10. A deadline for submissions has not yet been set.