News National Centrelink’s robo-debt ‘exploits disabled’

Centrelink’s robo-debt ‘exploits disabled’

Labor senator Deborah O'Neill has questioned if people were too scared to challenge the government over its figures. Photo: AAP
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Australians with disability are being exploited by Centrelink’s controversial robo-debt welfare recovery scheme, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.

The Senate’s community affairs committee is on Thursday hearing from social service experts, who are continuing their calls for the scheme to be scrapped.

National Social Security Rights Network solicitor Kathleen Boyle told senators about a case where a man born with an intellectual disability was required to prove he did not owe Centrelink $14,500.

The man – whose mother gave permission for Ms Boyle to share his story – works as a supermarket trolley collector and was asked to provide pay slips dating back to 2012.

“If he didn’t have his mother or us, he would be paying back that debt without it being properly established if he owed that money,” she told senators.

His case is currently being appealed.

Centrelink knows he has a disability because he receives welfare for that reason, Ms Boyle said.

“It is exploitative of people with disability, because they really have no understanding of what’s going on,” she said, pointing to a lack of transparency in Centrelink’s calculations.

The latest inquiry is the second in less than three years, while the scheme is also facing a class-action lawsuit.

Robo-debt is expected to cost more than $500 million over the next three years, for a benefit of $2 billion to the federal budget.

Ms Boyle told senators about a case where a family received a robo-debt for their relative who had passed away.

“They had died and yet the robo-debt system rolled on.”

Labor senator Deborah O’Neill said 80 per cent of debt notices were repaid, questioning if people were too scared to challenge the government over its figures.

The scheme matches tax office and Centrelink data to claw back overpaid welfare payments.

Liberal senator Matt O’Sullivan questioned why people had trouble accessing bank statements from institutions they no longer had accounts with.

“Remember, we’re not talking about people who are very confident or able to advocate for themselves,” Ms Boyle said.

“They’re not used to dealing with big institutions like that.”

He was pointed to another case where someone was told it would cost $45 to access a bank statement from a closed account, which they could not afford.

Ms Boyle recalled one instance where someone had to provide pay slips dating back 10 years, while other people were told they had to pay back welfare when a debt collector turned up at their house.

The Australian Council of Social Service acknowledged changes had been made to the system since its inception, but argued it did not alter fundamental design flaws.

The government has admitted about one-fifth of debt notices have been wrong.