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The Senate Robo-Debt Enquiry

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On Wednesday and Thursday the Senate Enquiry into the Department of Human Services debt recovery programme held meetings in Canberra.

There was a dramatic opening statement by Cassandra Goldie, the head of the Australian Council of Social Services, who claimed that Centrelink had created a “climate of fear” among welfare recipients.

She was supported by the Secretary of the Commonwealth Public Sector Union (CPSU) who said that Centrelink was “an agency in crisis.”

In response the Secretary of the Department of Human Services, Kathryn Campbell, told the Senators that: “This is a complex payment system and often people don’t understand the obligations that go with the payments, that they are required to update various pieces of information.

We do our very best to make it as streamlined and user-friendly as possible but I do acknowledge that there will be people distressed.”

She said that more people had become distressed because of the media campaign that took place over the December – January period.

“Because of some of the stories in the media there was a belief that all debts were wrong and so therefore people started to say “I want this debt waived, I don’t think I should have to pay this back”” she said.

Overall, about 216,000 investigations were launched from September to December and 133,078 debts were recovered.

More than 97,000 people were charged a recovery fee as they had not provided information about their income or a reasonable explanation for that lack of information.

Five and a half thousand people had their debts waived as they were under $50 and were not cost effective to pursue or because there was an administration error or unusual circumstances.

Of the over 200,000 welfare recipients investigated, 2875 people have had their debts reduced to zero.

The ABC’s Fran Kelly interviewed Human Services Minister Alan Tudge last week and alleged that there were thousands of wrong debts created by Centrelink and asked what would be done about it.

The Minister denied this was the case and said that 65% of the cases cited in the media had proved to have real debts to Centrelink.

He said that the average call to Centrelink’s 1800 number was responded to in 5 seconds.

He added that the original letters seeking further information were sent as registered mail to ensure they were actually received.

However he stressed that there was an obligation on welfare recipients to update their information in a timely manner.

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Image Source – Shinjiman