The Turnbull government is changing the Centrelink debt letter system, but it's still not backing down

Human Services minister Alan Tudge. Source: Twitter

Centrelink’s data-matching process has taken a political hammering in the past fortnight amid claims of inaccuracies in alleged debts calculated as owed by some social security recipients.

While the Coalition government has refused to suspend the practice, the human services department has now made some concessions in its procedures.

Human Services minister Alan Tudge has ordered the department to make some minor changes to improve the process. According to The Australian, the reforms include:

  • Adding Centrelink’s 1800 telephone number to the debt notification letters.
  • Altering wording to demand “overpayments be reimbursed” to make the message “clearer and more intuitive”.
  • Customers will have a chance to request an internal review of the supposed debt before debt collectors are called in, as long as the review is requested immediately after the first notice
  • More stringent checking of the destination address for letters, by cross-checking against electoral rolls and other government data

Business Insider has contacted the department of human services for comment.

The changes come after Fairfax Media reported on Friday that the number of letters sent out has passed 230,000. The government had previously stated its aim to get back $4.5 billion in overpayments via 1.7 million “compliance interventions”.

Meanwhile many letter recipients have complained of incorrectly calculated debts, debt collectors coming in without a chance to dispute the balance and long waits on the Centrelink telephone service line.

Opponents of the data-matching system, such as Labor MP Linda Burney and independent Andrew Wilkie, have said that some have paid the alleged debt despite disagreeing with it, due to the “intimidation” factor. Wilkie also said that he’d been in touch with welfare recipients considering suicide as a result.

Third party organisations like the Community & Public Sector Union and St Vincent de Paul Society have warned that Centrelink will fail to cope with the flood of enquiries coming its way. St Vincent de Paul last week called on the government to cease “intimidating” Centrelink customers to pay down its own deficit.

The Centrelink data-matching practices are now the subject of a Commonwealth Ombudsman investigation.

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