Calls for an inquiry into Centrelink’s automated data matching system have increased as wrongly-accused welfare recipients battle mental health issues.
Labor MP Anthony Albanese on Friday took aim at Centrelink over an incorrect debt notice sent to a cancer survivor.
Meanwhile, another recipient who spoke to The New Daily, said she had to take time off work due to the stress the Centrelink saga had caused.
Information watchdog the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) on Wednesday declared it would assess the government agency’s new system, which was introduced to claw back $4 billion in overpayments as part of a budget repair measure.
“In 2017 we will be finalising an ongoing assessment of the privacy aspects of [the Human Services department’s] … income data matching program,” commissioner Timothy Pilgrim said in a statement.
On Friday, Senator Albanese defended Tony Barber, who wrongly received a notification from Centrelink stating he owed $4500, dating back to his recovery after chemotherapy.
The welfare agency’s letter plunged the Sydney man, 29, into stress as it told him it was his responsibility to provide evidence of work and welfare payments from six years ago while he was fighting for his life.
Mr Barber fought off cancer in 2010 and returned to work in January 2011.
“The only time that Mr Barber has ever received Centrelink payments in his life is during that period when he was recovering from chemotherapy and he deserves better from our national government than to be treated with such disrespect,” Senator Albanese told reporters.
“This Centrelink debt debacle has had an enormous impact on thousands of Australians.”
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who raised concerns about the system in early December, renewed calls for it to be suspended, asking the commonwealth ombudsman to investigate Centrelink’s suspected computer errors.
Senator Wilkie said he has received more than 100 complaints to his electoral office about problems with the debt recovery process.
“The government has terrified countless people, ruined the Christmases of many and even driven some people to contemplate taking their own lives,” he said in a statement.
“I’ve had four people now approach me … who I would describe as presenting as suicidal,” he told reporters in Hobart.
“This is terrifying people, and we’ve got a government who is saying there is no problem.”
Senator Wilkie referred the matter to the commonwealth ombudsman four days before Christmas and said the ombudsman’s office had now responded and was gathering information.
Senator Nick Xenophon also reported the matter to the ombudsman in December, saying he had been inundated with complaints about Centrelink’s system.
“The fact is, the government stuffed it up, they are treating genuine Centrelink recipients as criminals,” Senator Xenophon said on Wednesday.
“They need to apologise and go back to the drawing board. Clearly this is a system that appears to be run by robots and overly automated.”
The government has sent out 169,000 of the review letters regarding potential overpayment since July.
‘I took work off to deal with the stress’
Sianaye Evans, 23, received an early Christmas present from the government she could never have imagined – a debt-recovery notice for $3500 and a $280 recovery fee dating back to 2011.
Ms Evans, who was in year 11 and working casually at K-Mart at the time, said she had to take days off work to deal with the stress the Centrelink saga was causing.
“It’s been so stressful, when I was working through December doing 80-hour weeks I had to take days off work because I couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Ms Evans said.
Ms Evans first received a text message in November, notifying her she was being audited.
She was told to prove her innocence she had to supply her six-year-old payslips – which worked out to be 110 payslips overall – to Centrelink in seven days.
Ms Evans, who was in year 11 and working casually at K-Mart at the time, said five of those days were “wasted” trying to get her information to Centrelink, before she was put in contact with Minister for Human Service Alan Tudge’s office to streamline the process
“It wasted literally five days going back and forth it was nuts,” she said.
“It’s still ongoing today. My due date was the 22nd of December and I said, ‘while you’re going through the process of looking at everything I asked what do I do about this due date?’
“They said you have to start paying it you have to go onto a payment plan otherwise debt collectors are going to come to your house.”
Ms Evans is currently two payments down and still trying to prove her innocence.
“I wouldn’t go back to them [Centrelink] for anything, it’s not worth it at all.”