ACOSS Letter to PM Malcolm Turnbull on Centrelink disaster

31 January 2017
The Hon Malcolm Turnbull
Prime Minister
PO Box 6022
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Prime Minister

I write to you on an urgent basis to call on you to immediately halt the automated recovery
of Centrelink debts to prevent further harm being caused to potentially hundreds of
thousands of people who have received a Centrelink payment. The automated program is issuing tens of thousands of incorrect discrepancy notices, which are in many cases leading to inaccurate debt notices. We are deeply concerned that people are paying debts they do not owe or paying a debt higher than what they owe.

We are also alarmed by the ongoing deep human distress and financial pressure being caused to a significant proportion of the Australian population.

I first raised these concerns formally with the Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge in a letter dated 21 December 2016. I raised these issues again in a meeting with the Minister on 18 January 2017 and in a subsequent letter to the Minister sent 19 January 2017. I attach our correspondence. The Minister is yet to respond to the matters and questions raised in our initial and subsequent letters and is yet to address the core concerns that ACOSS as well as a host of individuals, community and legal organisations have with the automated debt
recovery program. The minor changes made to the program by Minister Tudge on 16 January 2017 fail to address these core concerns and we made this clear to the Minister in our meeting. The Minister undertook to respond to our request for an urgent stakeholder meeting but has failed to do so.

As Prime Minister, we are now seeking your urgent intervention, in light of the lack of action by the responsible Minister.

Our request for action is clear. We ask that you:

  • Immediately end the automated data-matching program of debt detection and recovery, including existing debt recovery action that has arisen under this program. Planned automated debt-recovery programs for pensioners should also be halted.
  • Convene a roundtable of key stakeholders and experts in social security to design a fair and humane approach to debt recovery.
  • Establish an independent investigation into the auto-debt recovery program, including into allegations made by Centrelink staff about the problems with the program.
  • Adequately resource Centrelink and community legal assistance services helping people with social security issues. Staffing cuts at Centrelink must be reversed.
  • Provide whistle-blower protections for Centrelink staff reporting poor administrative practices.

ACOSS has said from the outset that we are not opposed to Centrelink recovering overpayments where they have been made and the recovery of legitimate debts is conducted in a fair and humane manner.

However, Centrelink has a duty of care to ensure it provides and acts upon correct information and the automated debt recovery program is breaching this duty. It shifts the burden onto individuals to prove they do not have a Centrelink debt without proper internal investigation or verification. This is an abuse of government power. Previously, human beings at Centrelink would check and verify whether a debt was owed before contacting an individual. This must be reinstated to ensure Centrelink only contacts people about legitimate debts and does not cause unnecessary harm and distress to potentially hundreds of thousands of people.
It is critical that the process of recovering a legitimate debt is fair and humane. This includes ensuring an appropriate exercise of human discretion which takes into account the individual and family circumstances, putting a reasonable time limit on how far back Centrelink can go in seeking overpayments, ensuring that people can have flexibility with any repayment arrangements, and guaranteeing zero tolerance for aggressive debt collection practices. The Commonwealth has a special responsibility to protect people against the abuse of power, including government powers, and must place a high priority on supporting the health and wellbeing of people in the community who rely on its services, including social security recipients.

Most of us will access a Centrelink payment at some stage in our lives and we must be able to have confidence in the Department of Human Services and Centrelink as key institutions that provide essential supports. The automated debt recovery program, however, is undermining trust in Centrelink and trust that government will act in good faith.
ACOSS and the sector stand ready to work with you to create a fair system of debt recovery.
However, there must be an immediate end to the current automated program and any debt recovery action arising from it.
You will be aware that we have previously written to seek a meeting with you, and my office will follow up again in this regard. However, we urge you to take immediate action in relation to the issues set out in this letter.
Yours sincerely,
Dr Cassandra Goldie
Copy to the Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter
Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge