Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has been ridiculed for his claim there is nothing wrong with Centrelink’s automated debt recovery system, as leaked documents show frontline staff have been advised not to help clients process disputes.
Speaking for the first time on the automated debt recovery system since returning from holiday, Mr Tudge issued a statement to The New Daily and other media outlets in which he asserted that the system is a success.
“People who work hard and pay taxes to assist those in need expect there to be integrity in the welfare system, and that is exactly what we are ensuring,” he said.
“Labor is demanding we cease a process that has successfully recovered over $300 million of incorrectly paid taxpayers money since July and, frankly, I don’t think many taxpayers would support that call.”
This is despite hundreds of Australians claiming they have been issued with inaccurate demands for payment.
Mr Tudge’s assertion comes as ABC’s 7.30 program revealed it obtained an internal Centrelink memo stating that staff “should refer customers online to undertake the intervention” and “must not process activities in relation to the Online Compliance Intervention”.
The instructions, available on Centrelink’s internal communications system, also told staff in bold text: “Do not cancel the activity under any circumstances”, the ABC reported.
See the full document at the bottom of the story
This seems to contradict Mr Tudge’s comments to the ABC on Wednesday that people having problems with online and telephone services could go into a Centrelink office and see someone “in 10 minutes”.
In his earlier statement to The New Daily and other outlets, the minister said: “Centrelink is simply doing what has been done for years – cross checking Tax Office income information against what welfare recipients have self-reported to Centrelink. The only major change is that it is more automated so we can complete more checks.
“At any point in the process, an individual can call a Centrelink officer for assistance.
“To date, only 1.6 per cent of people who are issued with a debt notice request a formal review. This is not significantly different to what occurred under the previous manual system.”
The “major change” referred to by the minister is the removal of human oversight over a flawed data matching system introduced by Labor while in government in 2011, and a dramatic escalation of the number of people targeted.
His comments were greeted with widespread disbelief and ridicule, as they seemed to ignore or dismiss the hundreds of reports of emotional distress caused by the letters, which many insist are partly or wholly incorrect.
— Vocal Minority (@avocalminority) January 12, 2017
A spokesman for the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) told The New Daily the automated system must be suspended until it is fixed.
“The issue we have is that we clearly have a system that has been developed that doesn’t work and our position is that they need to stop using the system until they can make it work,” he said.
“At least one in five of the people that receive these letters can very quickly establish that they don’t have a debt so why are they being sent letters in the first place?
“Clearly that shows there’s a major issue with how this has been set up. It’s a very blunt and inaccurate instrument at this point.”
— Nick Wall (@NickWallau) January 12, 2017
The charitable group, St Vincent de Paul Society, has called on the government to stop using Centrelink to punish the vulnerable.
National Council CEO Dr John Falzon said in a statement the faulty system should be suspended while flaws are investigated.
“People should not be intimidated and hounded for money they do not owe,” Dr Falzon said.
“Centrelink should not be used by the government as a blunt weapon to achieve a deficit reduction on the backs of people who already carry the greatest burden of inequality.
“The government has a responsibility to provide social and economic security to its people.
“This should not be delivered as if it were charity and should never become a means of profit. Nor should it be overshadowed and accompanied by humiliation and shame.”
– Jackson Stiles, James Ried and Neil Frankland