News National Government concedes ground on Centrelink debt letters, as its popularity plunges

Government concedes ground on Centrelink debt letters, as its popularity plunges

More than 42 million calls to Centrelink this financial year received an engaged signal. Photo: AAP
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The Turnbull government will make a series of changes to Centrelink’s controversial debt recovery system after weeks of politically damaging criticism.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has instructed his department to amend the recovery process.

This is despite the government’s continued insistence that the computer-run scheme, which claws back alleged overpayments, is a success.

Mr Tudge’s concession comes amid explosive new allegations that Centrelink workers have been given daily debt quotas to meet, and followed a new poll that showed the controversy was hurting the government’s electoral chances.

The changes include simplifying the language used in debt notices to make them “clearer and more intuitive” and adding Centrelink’s 1800 number to the letters.

Recipients will also be able to request an internal review before debt recovery begins if they can prove they did not receive the first debt letter.

Mr Tudge told Sydney radio station 2GB on Monday that Centrelink would now send letters to a number of different addresses, including those on the electoral roll, because some recipients’ details had been out of date.

“And so the first that a person might hear about their debt notice is when there’s a debt collector on their doorstep.”

‘Debt quotas’

The debt recovery system is currently under investigation by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, while the National Audit Office is considering its own inquiry.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie wrote to the ombudsman on Monday levelling a series of explosive claims relayed to him by current and ex-Centrelink employees.

alan tudge
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge says the government wants welfare recipients to get the payments they are entitled to. Photo: AAP

“Officers are given a quota of 6-10 debt notices a day and encouraged by senior departmental staff to compete with each other for the highest quota,” the letter, published on Mr Wilkie’s website, says.

Mr Wilkie said a “high” number of clients were suicidal but some had been not transferred to a social worker due to high demand.

His letter also claimed officers were discouraged from closely examining complex cases and were encouraged to work overtime to increase the debt notice quota.

“Every day new cases of bogus debts are coming into my office which has received hundreds of complaints from people who have recounted deeply disturbing stories about Centrelink’s debt hunt,” Mr Wilkie said.

But Centrelink spokesman Hank Jongen denied that officers had been given quotas.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie.
Andrew Wilkie has submitted a series of claims to the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

“Staff have not been instructed to raise six to 10 debt notices per day as part of this measure. There is no quota, debt notices are raised as debts are identified,” he said in a statement.

“However, as part of our normal practice we do have service standard targets for dealing with debts as quickly as possible, which may include overtime. It would appear these two processes have been confused.”

Mr Jongen also rejected claims staff were instructed not to query debts and said there had been “no increase in social work referrals” due to the debt recovery system.

Government’s poll hit

Mr Tudge announced the Centrelink changes as a new poll suggested the controversy was impacting the government’s electoral changes.

A ReachTEL poll of 2126 Australians found 46.2 per cent support for stopping the automated-system, including 41 per cent of Liberal voters.

linda burney
Labor’s Human Services spokeswoman wrote to the government about Centrelink debt notices. Photo: AAP

The poll, commissioned by left-leaning lobby group GetUp!, found 31.8 per cent opposed a halt of the program.

And 49.8 per cent of respondents would be “less likely” to vote for the Coalition over the Centrelink controversy.

Since Christmas, welfare recipients have told The New Daily they have received debt notices and been contacted by debt collectors chasing money they did not owe.

On Monday, Labor’s Linda Burney reiterated her call for a halt to the system, saying the Minister had “finally admitted what everyone else already knows”.

The government has previously said it was on track to raise $4 billion through the debt recovery program over the next four years.

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