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QCOSS Report - Senate Inquiry into Centrelink automated debt

Commonwealth Ombudsman's report on Centrelink debt recovery program to the policy area

Robodebt program must be evaluated before expansion: Commonwealth Ombudsman

COSS Network reiterates its call for program to end

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has released a damning report into the Federal Government’s automated Centrelink debt recovery program, known as the ‘robodebt’ program, calling for its evaluation before it is expanded.

CEO of ACOSS, Dr Cassandra Goldie, with the COSS Network, again called on the government to halt the robodebt program.

“The Government must stop the robodebt program, which, as the Commonwealth Ombudsman has shown in its report on the program released today (link is external), has made people vulnerable because of the stress and anxiety it has caused. The report makes clear that this program was poorly designed, communication was “deficient”, and that there are a host of problems with shifting the onus of proof onto people affected”, said Dr Goldie.

“The Ombudsman recognised that it “is not reasonable or fair” to expect people to collect evidence from up to six years ago to prove their innocence. The ATO, in comparison, only expects people to retain documents for two years.

“The Ombudsman received 241 complaints about the robodebt program in just three months. It shows a number of cases where people’s alleged debts were reduced to zero after a reassessment. Most alarmingly, no modelling was done prior to the program to see how many alleged debts would be likely over-calculated. This is a shocking revelation, particularly for a program that is expected to recover $2 billion in debts.

“We are pleased the Ombudsman shares our view about the 10% recovery fee, recommending that cases be reviewed where it has been applied automatically.

“We also support the Ombudsman’s recommendation for the program to be evaluated, but we call for any evaluation to be independent.

“While the Ombudsman’s recommendations would improve the robodebt program, we still consider the program fundamentally flawed and unfair. It must be stopped and Government must redesign a system of fair and humane debt recovery with the assistance of experts in the field so that this important part of Centrelink’s operations does not cause extensive human distress.”

Contact:  Australian Council of Social Service, 0419 626 155
 

Key findings from the Ombudsman’s Report (TasCOSS summary)

The Ombudsman’s report confirms what TasCOSS, our friends, family members, neighbours and fellow Tasmanians have experienced: the Centrelink robodebt system must be halted immediately.

It has hurt vulnerable Australians and created a situation in which:

(3.45) ‘In some instances customers may become vulnerable because of the debt raising and recovery process itself.’

Overview

The Ombudsman calls for a halt to any further rollout until a comprehensive evaluation of what has happened is undertaken. (Recommendation 8)

The Ombudsman has also called for further roll out to be done incrementally.

Critically, the Ombudsman:

  • States the process itself may have caused vulnerability because of the stress it put people under.
  • Calls for a review of those cases where a recovery fee has been applied when a person had not made any contact after the issuing of a letter.
  • States the principle of transparent and open decision making should apply—even in automated processes—and that this did not occur. It notes that prior to changes in January, the initial letters during 2016 and some parts of January 2017 did not supply appropriate or transparent information.  
  • States six years is an inappropriate period of time for people to have to maintain their payslips. It notes the ATO requires two years’ worth, and this could be considered a benchmark.
  • About the rollout

The Ombudsman’s report notes the following regarding the robodebt rollout:

  • There are major issues with the system and the rollout that are not in line with administrative law values of lawfulness, fairness, rationality, openness, transparency and efficiency. 
  • There was a massive project planning failure – particularly in consultation with external stakeholders – before and during the rollout.
  • No stakeholder engagement, briefings or communication
  • No resources to support key stakeholders who would be impacted by a broad scale rollout of a new system
  • There was no planning, no testing, and no risk mitigation strategies
  • Letters requesting information from individuals provided an inadequate time to respond.
  • About the system

The Ombudsman notes the following:

  • Transparency of the system and the usability of the system was and still is, seriously flawed.
  • The system does not clearly communicate and therefore has led to confusion and misunderstanding – for staff and clients.
  • No modelling has been done on how many debts were likely to be over-calculated by the online system – they don’t know.
  • The accuracy of the automated information needs to be validated by a human
  • The capacity for the system (DHS) to respond was inadequate and the communication and actions by DHS staff was not appropriate as they had not been adequately trained in how to check/validate/respond.
  • The cost impact of providing income evidence is unreasonable and needs to be reconsidered.
  • About the impact of the system on people

The Ombudsman notes the following:

  • The risk of over-recovering debts from vulnerable people and the potential impact should have been considered
  • The system has been so confusing for people to use they have in many circumstances, not engaged with the system, or given up on it and this has had an impact.
  • The DHS underestimated the complexity of requirements it was shifting on to people in order to comply – and did not offer adequate assistance to people. 
  • That an expansion of the criteria for vulnerability should occur and the type of support offered to clients who are vulnerable should be enhanced.