A union claims almost every Centrelink debt letter is wrong and will bring a ‘perfect storm’ of complaints

A Medicare and Centrelink office sign is seen at Bondi Junction on March 21, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Source: Getty)

Centrelink staff will not be able to cope in an expected “perfect storm” of customer enquiries arising out of the debt data-matching scandal, the union representing public service workers has warned.

The Community & Public Sector Union has demanded the federal government immediately suspend the automated big data system, which in the past week has been hammered for its lack of accuracy in determining debts.

“This scheme is an absolute nightmare for thousands of Centrelink customers who’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, and the staff who are bearing the brunt of this mess,” said CPSU assistant national secretary Michael Tull.

“We hold very serious concerns about Centrelink’s ability to cope in coming months. There’s a perfect storm of work coming, with this debt recovery scheme likely to be just part of the problem.”

The Commonwealth ombudsman has started investigating the Centrelink data-matching system, which has reportedly sent out more than 170,000 letters to customers accusing them of owing money or questioning their welfare eligibility. Many recipients have disagreed with the letters, with the notices allegedly sending some to the brink of suicide.

Tull said that in “almost every case”, supposed debtors ended up owing no money or “just a fraction” of the stated amount after manual review by Centrelink staff.

“In at least one case, an initial debt for $9,000 ended up being $90. That’s not a minor discrepancy but a clear sign of a failed system,” he said.

The government and the department of human services has defended the system — which combines Centrelink data with Australian Taxation Office records — citing that 80% of letter recipients have paid the debts.

The union called for the data-matching processing to be halted, with Tull citing that to start the year, staff would already have to deal with student benefit applications, work arising from the government’s old age pension cuts and “problems” with Medicare processing.

“The serious problems with this debt recovery program are piling on even more pressure, and feeding more aggression from understandably frustrated customers,” he said.

“Centrelink absolutely doesn’t have enough staff to deal with so many cases. Taking staff from other areas to try to deal with this situation will only cause massive problems elsewhere as well.”

Tull accused the coalition government of causing “real damage” to the department of human services with its refusal to back down from the automated debt letters. The union is recommending that, as short term relief, casual staff at Centrelink be upgraded to permanent roles to accommodate the expected workload.