Government rejects robo-debt shutdown report as “political’ – June 2017

Filed under: Politics, Australian Politics, Senate, Social and Community, Social Services,

The Senate inquiry into Centrelink’s controversial automated debt recovery system – widely known as ‘robo-debt’ – has called for the system to be suspended until its many flaws can be resolved.

The inquiry whose report was published on Wednesday made 21 recommendations for fixing the robo-debt system.

It urged:

  • That all debts calculated using the error-prone “income averaging” process to be reassessed
  • a redesign of the system with a robust risk assessment process.

In its majority report the committee said, “the evidence consistently demonstrated a key flaw in the Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program [robo-debt], a flaw which filtered throughout the OCI debt recovery process: a fundamental lack of procedural fairness.”

It said the robo-debt system “should be put on hold until all procedural fairness flaws are addressed, and the other recommendations of this report are implemented. If these issues are addressed, the OCI should only be continued in its new form after the new One Touch Payroll system is implemented in 2018.”

However, the inquiry is unlikely to resolve the robo-debt controversy with the two Coalition members of the Senate Community Affairs Committee issuing a dissenting minority report and the Minister for Social Services Christian Porter saying he preferred the report of the Government Ombudsman on robo-debt, which recommended changes to the operation of the robo-debt system but not its discontinuation. He described the Senate inquiry as “very much a political report and there's a strong minority but dissenting view put in that report.”

The Committee was composed of one Green, three Labor and two Coalition senators.

The Ombudsman’s report also found Centrelink’s behaviour towards welfare recipients it claimed had been overpaid was neither “reasonable” nor “fair” but said that Centrelink’s request for information from recipients was reasonable, and the widely reported 20 per cent error rate was not accurate. The Government is not obliged to implement the Senate Committee recommendations but must respond to them.

The Coalition Senators report highlighted the changes and improvements made by the Government to the robo-debt system and acknowledged evidence of “confusion” in the early stages of the rollout. It ““reject(ed) the central conclusion of the Chair's report that the OCI process lacked procedural fairness. “

The Australian Council of Social Service chief executive, Cassandra Goldie, said the system is unworkable and must be abolished. “Since its adoption 12 months ago, robo-debt has issued thousands of debt notices in error to parents, people with disabilities, carers and those seeking paid work, resulting in people slapped with Centrelink debts they do not owe or debts higher than what they owe,” she said. “It has been a devastating abuse of government power that has caused extensive harm, particularly among people who are the most vulnerable in our community.”

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