Centrelink is referring some people distressed from its data-matching debt claims to Lifeline

A Centrelink office in Melbourne. Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Customers suffering distress and anxiety from debt notification letters sent out from Centrelink’s data-matching system are being referred to Lifeline by the federal welfare agency.

On Wednesday, independent MP Andrew Wilkie claimed that he had been in touch with people who were suicidal as a result of the allegedly false debt notices. He said that “the government has terrified countless people”.

Now social media records show that Centrelink’s official account has been advising multiple customers to get in touch with Lifeline in the midst of correspondence:

Former Greens leader Christine Milne on Twitter called for the prime minister’s intervention in the data-matching debacle: “What sort of Government terrifies its poorest people then tells them to ring Lifeline? Centrelink debacle must stop.”

According to HuffPost Australia, Centrelink’s phone lines have been congested with enquiries, with some customers reporting making “hundreds of calls” before getting through and spending “hours” on hold.

Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen denied phone lines were experiencing higher-than-normal demand.

“There is no evidence of phone lines and service centres being adversely impacted – demand for our services is consistent with this time of year,” he said. “Currently, the Department’s average speed of answer on the telephone lines is under 16 minutes.”

Although Centrelink’s data-matching system has been in place for years to rein in unjustified welfare costs, the coalition government last year accelerated the process by removing manual checking. The debt warning notices, generated from big data analysis after information from other government agencies such as the Australian Tax Office were cross-checked against Centrelink’s own records, have since been delivered to recipients without a human eye to catch discrepancies.

More than 170,000 Centrelink customers have reportedly received letters accusing them of owing money or questioning their welfare eligibility. Many recipients of the notices have disputed that they have debts, with a social media campaign highlighting the angst among those who have been wrongly accused.

Human services minister Alan Tudge appeared last month on Nine Network’s A Current Affair to threaten jail sentences for those who don’t pay the alleged debt.

Nick Xenophon Team MP Rebekha Sharkie today said on social media that her office was busy helping “stressed” constituents with false debt notices, and called for the scheme to be halted.

The debt recovery system scheme has also been previously condemned by the Labor opposition, Legal Aid Victoria, the Australian Privacy Foundation and the Australian Council for Social Services, according to The Guardian, as well as Wilkie and Milne.