Many Australians have allegedly received demands from Centrelink to pay back money, as a result of a new computer system that matched their data to information from other government agencies.
The big data system was brought in last year as a part of the federal government’s campaign to rein in unjustified welfare costs. Unfortunately, the debt claims are incorrectly targeting many legitimate welfare recipients, according to the website NotMyDebt, which arose out of social media concerns from those who have been falsely accused by Centrelink.
One example on the website shows a woman on a disability pension, despite over-estimating her spouse’s income every year, receiving a demand from Centrelink to pay back a supposed $18,000 debt.
“She disputed this, as none of the numbers match up and we’ve been waiting three months for them to get back to us. In the meantime they’ve put us on the minimum payment of $20 per month so we’ve just been paying that while we wait,” wrote the child of the couple on social media.
Department of human services, which oversees Centrelink, says that no debt notices are generated until the customer verifies information cross-checked against Australian Tax Office records.
“The department is determined to ensure that people get what they are entitled to — nothing more, nothing less,” said department of human services general manager Hank Jongen.
“No decision to raise a debt or otherwise is undertaken until the customer has been provided an opportunity to correct the information that the ATO have provided. Over 70 per cent (72 per cent) of people who received an online compliance letter since September this year have completely resolved the matter. Only 2.2 per cent of customers were requested to supply supporting documentation.”
Human services minister Alan Tudge has previously threatened jail sentences for those who don’t pay the alleged debt, going on Nine Network’s A Current Affair last month to say: “We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison.”
However, Fairfax Media reported last week that the level of false debt accusations has reached such a point now that the Labor opposition has demanded the data-matching system be scrapped. Legal Aid Victoria, the Australian Privacy Foundation, the Australian Council for Social Services and independent MP Andrew Wilkie have also called for intervention, according to the Guardian.
“This is a crude and inaccurate approach with data matching… we think it should stop,” Labor’s acting human services spokesman Doug Cameron told ABC radio last week.
“The anecdotal evidence is quite compelling and that is that many, many people, innocent Australians going about their business… are getting a bill leading up to the Christmas period.”
The system problems also seem to affect those that are not even receiving welfare payments. Brisbane resident Luana Latham told Fairfax Media that the online form to access her superannuation to pay for urgent surgery next month has not been working for more than two weeks.
“It should be automatic and simple. I understand systems go down, but this has been weeks – and it’s accessing my own money, not pension payments or anything,” she said.
“I am entitled to apply for early release of my super to pay for the cost of the surgery… but it’s all done online. You can’t send in a physical form because they’ve moved all the processes to a new system and it fails every time.”
Latham was instructed by Centrelink staff to continue trying the online form, while one employee even suggested her surgery be postponed.