MINISTER: There's nothing wrong with Centrelink debt letters so we're not stopping them

A Medicare and Centrelink office sign is seen at Bondi Junction on March 21, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. Federal public sector workers are expected to strike around Australia over a long-running pay dispute.

It seems Centrelink’s data-matching woes will continue, with the federal human services minister digging his heels in and refusing to scrap the controversial system.

The data-matching system, which brings together Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink records to determine individuals that supposedly received excessive welfare payments, has reportedly sent out more than 170,000 letters. Controversy has arisen about the accuracy of these assessments, with many recipients disputing their debt.

Coalition minister Alan Tudge, who returned to work from holidays this week, told ABC Radio National this morning that the “system is working” and that the debt recovery process would continue.

“Last six months alone, we have recovered over $300 million to the taxpayer through that process,” he said. “The welfare system constitutes a third of the budget so we want to make sure people get the welfare payments they’re entitled to, and no more and no less.”

Tudge also denied that customers enquiring about the letters are struggling to get through on the Centrelink telephone line, and said the current average waiting time is “about 12 minutes”. In the 2013-14 financial year, the National Audit Office found 13.7 million calls to Centrelink were rejected with a busy signal.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who has been calling for the data-matching system to be scrapped, said he was “shocked and baffled” by Tudge’s perception that the process is operating well.

“By Centrelink’s own admission they’re sending out some 4,000 incorrect debt notices a week,” he said, adding that the Commonwealth ombudsman would not be investigating if there wasn’t something wrong.

“The government is simply out of touch with the community and public interest on this.”

Department of human services has continued to defend the system with the statistic that 80% of letter recipients have paid the debts.

Malcolm Turnbull’s former digital tsar Paul Shetler said last week that a 20% failure rate was “unfathomable” and that such a project would be stopped and judged a complete failure in the private sector.

“All I can say is, if they were a commercial company, you would go out of business with a 20% failure rate,” he said at the time.

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