3 Jan 2017

Centrelink debt notices, data matching










Subject: Centrelink debt notices, data matching

HAMISH McDONALD: There are growing calls for Centrelink to halt its new automated compliance system after a number of citizens reported being issues incorrect debt notices. The new system automatically compares the income people declare to the Australian Taxation Office against income declared to Centrelink. When it detects a disparity, Centrelink automatically issues a debt notice and that debt comes with a ten percent recovery fee. But there are concerns the data Centrelink is comparing is incorrect and that the Centrelink system to amend those debt notices doesn’t work. The Labor Party is also calling on the federal government to suspend the Centrelink automated system.

Labor SenatOr Doug Cameron is Shadow Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships. He joins me now. Welcome to RN breakfast.

SENATOR DOUG CAMERON: Good morning Hamish.

McDONALD: Labor says it’s concerned about the accuracy of Centrelink’s debt recovery program. What exactly are you hearing about people receiving these letters from Centrelink?

CAMERON: Well, I have had a woman come to my office with a bill of $9000 from Centrelink. She had been meticulous in her reporting and simply because she had taken some time off during the year, the dragnet approach of the data matching didn’t pick this up and she’s ended up with a bill. This woman was pretty elderly, very distressed and this is not an uncommon report.

McDONALD: The Human Services Minister, Alan Tudge told Triple-J’s Hack program that the Centrelink debt letters are generated because, in his words, there is a discrepancy between the information people have provided to Centrelink about their income and what the ATO record is for them. That’s a reasonable problem – some people might have provided slightly different details?

CAMERON: I’ve also had a report of a person putting in the trading name of a company and the business name being different so even that small discrepancy meant this individual had a bill that wasn’t a proper bill. This is a crude and inaccurate approach, the data matching approach. It’s very crude, it’s very inaccurate and we think it should stop.

McDONALD: Is it wide scale that you know of? I’ve also read probably the same reports as you and there seems to be some anecdotes about instances where this is happening. I’m wondering if you have any data on the scale of these data discrepancies.

CAMERON: I don’t have any data on it but I know the anecdotal evidence is quite compelling and that is there are many, many people who are innocent Australians going about their business are getting a bill leading up to the Christmas period and [indistinct] and had the Minister on the radio telling people they would go to jail – an absolutely terrible proposition.

McDONALD: What’s many, many?

CAMERON: The best I can tell you is that Centrelink itself say that there may be discrepancies in 2.2 percent. This is 20,000 a week so if you take 2.2 percent of that and take it across the year, it’s many thousands.

McDONALD: And you therefore think that for the moment the whole thing should be scrapped?

CAMERON: Yes, we think it should be scrapped or certainly it should be suspended because we’ve already got a Centrelink whistle-blower saying that the … who manages this program, saying this is grossly unfair, it’s flawed and overly harsh, it’s error prone. It gives the compliance officers no discretion to deal with the issues and people are being told to go and find payslips that are several years old.

This is another mess from the Turnbull government, another mess that we should not be in.

McDONALD: But does it sound like to you this is anything more than teething problems. I mean, if you’re putting in place a system like this where you are using mass data and you’re comparing different bits of data from different systems you’re going to get a bit of this at the beginning aren’t you?

CAMERON: Well, you know, it can be dismissed like that but these are innocent Australians receiving bills for tens of thousands of dollars and during the Christmas period being told that there will be a ten percent penalty if they don’t pay up and being told publicly by the Minister they could go to jail. This is an outrageous proposition.

Labor supports only those people who are entitled to receive welfare payments receiving those payments. But we don’t support this dragnet approach, this crude data matching approach putting innocent people in a panic. It’s just not acceptable.

McDONALD: But if you think you can save billions of dollars by cracking down on the flaws within the system, you have to take these sorts of approaches don’t you and work through the detail if and when problems arise? I’m just wondering why you think the whole system needs to be suspended when there’s from what I can tell a number of anecdotes and no formal data on the scale of the problem.

CAMERON: Well, as I’ve indicated to you, Centrelink themselves say 2.2 percent. That’s thousands of Australians getting bills and getting threats that they shouldn’t be getting.

McDONALD: Sure, but 2.2 percent is not necessarily the mistake. You’re talking about people who are wrongfully receiving these demands.

CAMERON: Well that’s the mistakes if they’re wrongfully receiving these demands …

McDONALD: Sure, sure, but then you’re sort of implying that 2.2 percent is the number of mistakes – that’s not correct?

CAMERON: Shouldn’t Centrelink actually take a pause, look at how crude this approach is, change it, fix it and make sure innocent Australians are not getting the life frightened out of them during the Christmas period.

McDONALD: And why can’t they do that while the system is still running? Why do they need to suspend it?

CAMERON: Because of the system itself. We’ve got Centrelink insiders saying it’d grossly unfair, it’s flawed, it’s overly harsh, it’s error prone. You would stop that immediately and reassess wouldn’t you?

McDONALD: Alright, we’ll have to leave it there. We appreciate your time this morning. Labor Senator Doug Cameron.

CAMERON: No worries.

McDONALD: And happy New Year to you.

We did try contacting Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, He is on leave however. The acting Human Services Minister, Christian Porter, not available at this point for an interview but we will continue to follow this story.