Senate backs scrutiny of Centrelink data-matching program

Labor, Greens push inquiry

The Senate has backed an inquiry into Centrelink’s widely criticised data-matching program, which is intended to claw back welfare overpayments but whose accuracy and impact on welfare recipients has been condemned.

The Senate’s Community Affairs References Committee will scrutinise the program following a motion lodged by the Greens’ Senator Rachel Siewert and Labor’s Senator Doug Cameron.

The program has drawn on data from Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office to send out thousands of debt recovery notices; in a significant portion of cases there is no debt.

The government yesterday rejected a motion by Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie that condemned the program and human services minister Alan Tudge, who has denied the system is flawed.

“It is not acceptable that we have a debt recovery program now in place and running its course, where by the government’s and by Centrelink’s own admission, some 20 per cent of the debt notices that are being distributed are wrong,” Wilkie said.

“That is simply not acceptable. Something like 20,000 debt notices are being issued by Centrelink each week right now. That means that in the order of 4000 debt notices are going out each week from Centrelink and they are wrong. We know they are wrong, and so far the government has nothing to rectify it.”

Tudge said that Centrelink’s data-matching program dated back to 1990 and was introduced by Labor and argued the letters sent by the welfare agency were not debt notices.

“In about 20 per cent of occasions a person receives the correspondence from Centrelink pointing out a discrepancy and is able to validly explain why there is that discrepancy, and that is the end of the matter,” Tudge said.

“In the other 80 per cent of the cases, there has not been a response or there has not been a valid explanation as to why there might be a discrepancy. In that instance, a debt notice may be given.”

“In an attempt to claw back money from struggling Australians accessing our social safety net, the Government has caused a monumental mess that they refuse to back away from. This is just the tip of the iceberg as we know so many people are yet to receive the debt notice, it’s only going to get worse”, Siewert said in a statement released yesterday.

“It is bizarre that despite the rollout of the automated debt recovery system going so dismally wrong and at the expense of struggling Australians, the Government has offered no answers and next to no guarantee that they will improve the programme, nor have they committed to abandoning it.”

The Senate inquiry will examine the impact of the program as well as the administration and management of customers’ records by Centrelink, the adequacy of Centrelink’s complaint and review processes, and the process of awarding any contracts related to the program.

The motion establishing the inquiry states that it will examine “the capacity of the Department of Human Services and Centrelink services, including online, IT, telephone services and service centres to cope with levels of demand related to the implementation of the program” and the data-matching between Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office, including the selection of data.

The inquiry is due to report by 10 May.

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