Robodebt debacle must stop (Senate evidence) Children Young People and Families

Robodebt debacle must stop (Senate evidence)

On Tuesday April 11th VCOSS CEO Emma King was invited to give evidence before the Senate Inquiry into Centrelink’s ‘robo-debt’ program.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which me meet today and pay my respects to Elders past and present. I would also like to thank the Committee for inviting VCOSS to present.

Today I speak on behalf of VCOSS members: hundreds of organisations from across the community sector who are working to combat poverty and disadvantage. I also seek to give voice to the victims of Centrelink’s Online Compliance Intervention. Or, as it’s more commonly known, the robodebt program.

In Australia, we have got almost 3 million people living in poverty. In Victoria alone, more than 500,000 people reside in a household below the poverty line. This is most acutely felt in regional areas, and many more are teetering just above the poverty line.

Many of these people rely on social security as their main source of income.  Those on Newstart and the Parenting Payment (many of whom are lone parents) are the most likely to be below the poverty line.

These are Australia’s most vulnerable. And these are the people the Federal Government has absolutely targeted in one of the most catastrophic failures of government administration in the modern era.

Yesterday, the Commonwealth Ombudsman released a damning report, slamming DHS for its management of the robodebt program. The report said the program should be halted immediately, while a comprehensive evaluation is undertaken, and VCOSS echoes this call. But we go even further.

The robodebt system must be, to borrow a term used previously, must be ‘dead, buried and cremated’. It should not be allowed to resurface in anything resembling its current form.

The Ombudsman’s report picked up on a number of matters VCOSS have been concerned about since the program began. It found DHS failed to properly plan for the system. That it did not consult adequately, or model the rate and impact of errors in the system. That is, it did not bother to find out how many bogus debt notices would likely be issued.

Further, the Ombudsman determined it was “not reasonable or fair” to force people to find payslips and financial records from several years ago to clear their names, when the ATO only requires records be kept for two years.

VCOSS absolutely agrees.

In effect, the robodebt system shifted the burden of proof from the department, to the individual.

Individuals are expected to prove their innocence, or they literally pay the price. This is fundamentally unfair.

We have heard stories of people paying disputed debts with credit cards or going to payday lenders. And the Ombudsman did lay this out in some detail.

The Ombudsman also suggested recent changes to the robodebt system meant people can now—and I quote—“more easily get assistance by contacting the dedicated 1800 helpline.”

On this point VCOSS disagrees, and our members on the ground disagree. I would like to briefly read the Committee part of a letter sent to VCOSS just last week.

On Wednesday 22nd March I phoned 132 850 sixteen times between 1pm – 2 pm. The line was busy for the entire time.

At 2.13 pm I telephoned the 1300 306 325 line. I was then on hold for 3 hours and 12 minutes.

This is outrageous and unacceptable. I know this is not a one-off situation as the staff member I eventually spoke to at Centrelink told me, not once but twice –

“That kind of wait time is common on this line.”

Our members are flooded with stories of people affected by this robodebt debacle. I would like to tell you more of those stories today, but there is something has made this near impossible. On December 5th 2016, the Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge went on A Current Affair. He told Australians;

“We’ll find you, we’ll track you down and you will have to repay those debts and you may end up in prison”.

More recently, Minister Tudge provided personal details of a system critic to the press. The effect was as calculated. The government has created a climate of fear that has silenced victims and critics.

One woman who received a bogus debt notice wouldn’t even let me talk about her experiences today, even when I explained to her that her name would not be used.

VCOSS recognises that legitimate overpayments must be recouped.

However, this is not the way to do it.

In summary, VCOSS opposes the robodebt system for five key reasons:

1)  Crude data matching is inaccurate and unfair.
2)  Reversing the burden of proof is manifestly unjust.
3)  There is a complete lack of transparency and usability in system.
4)  The system does not clearly communicate with people, leaving them confused, fearful and anxious.
5)  People are paying debts that they just don’t owe.

And all of this is occurring in a climate of fear and intimidation.

This is a massive fiscal fishing expedition by the Federal Government.  It has booked savings in the budget and now it need to find them.

But vulnerable Australians are more than cogs in the Government’s budget repair war machine. They are human beings.

The Federal Government must immediately stop its flawed debt recovery program.

If the government wants to clawback genuine Centrelink overpayments it must find a way to do so that is fair, transparent, that fulfils its duty of care to welfare recipients and that treats welfare recipients with dignity.