Centrelink’s robo-debt system scrutinised by national audit office


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Review, due to be tabled this month, examines whether ‘sound processes’ were established to support fraud prevention

Centrelink’s controversial debt recovery system has been scrutinised in a soon-to-be-released report by the Australian National Audit Office.

Stories continue to emerge of drastic errors with the system, including one that targeted a former Australian of the Year Queensland finalist, the medical researcher Janet Hammill.

Hammill said her $6,700 “debt” was last week reduced to zero after she spoke out about her treatment, prompting the intervention of her local member.

“My concerns now are for those who have not been able to make their situations with Centrelink heard,” she told Guardian Australia.

The audit office last month rejected a specific request from Labor’s Linda Burney to investigate the robo-debt system, after repeated complaints that it was saddling vulnerable Australians with bogus debts.

At the time auditor general, Grant Hehir said his agency did not want to duplicate the existing inquiry launched by the commonwealth ombudsman but would consider an audit in the 2017-18 financial year.

But Guardian Australia understands that his office has looked at the controversial system under an existing performance audit, titled “fraud prevention and compliance initiatives in human services”.

That audit was designed to examine a number of compliance measures funded in the 2015-16 budget, which included the automated debt recovery system.

The audit has examined whether “sound processes and practices” were established to support the implementation and design of the compliance and fraud-prevention budget measures. It also investigated whether the government has actually achieved savings from the measures and whether their effectiveness was being properly monitored.

The report is complete and is due to be tabled in February.

The only suggestion of the audit’s findings has come from the Department of Human Services.

The department’s general manager for communications, Hank Jongen, said last week that independent audits of the debt recovery system showed it was “generally effective” in detecting discrepancies. The department subsequently referred a request for the release of those audits to the national audit office.

Anger over the system continues to put senior ministers under pressure, including the attorney general, George Brandis, who prompted laughter on Q&A on Monday night by suggesting anyone with concerns could simply contact Centrelink.

Guardian Australia continues to receive reports of individuals having their debts dramatically reduced after lodging disputes.

Last month it was revealed that Hammill, acclaimed for her work on foetal alcohol syndrome, had been targeted by the system, which claims she owed a $6,700 debt.

Hammill earns no income from her work but did receive a research grant in 2011, which the system deemed to rule her ineligible for welfare benefits at any point during that year.

She was forced to begin repaying the money even though she had lodged a dispute. Hammill said she had been contacted by Centrelink on Friday morning and informed there had been a mistake. Her debt was reduced to zero.

“After deciding I did not owe $7,633, Centrelink said it had been reduced to $1,760 because I had been coded in twice,” Hammill said. “Some of this so-called debt they had retrieved from me.

“To my surprise on Friday morning … I received a phone call from human services to say I owed nothing because I had been taxed at a higher scale for the small grant I had won in 2011,” she said.

A range of welfare organizations, unions, politicians and lobby groups continue to call for an immediate end to the automate debt recovery system.

The Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union is holding a meeting as part of its “dignity not debt” campaign on Thursday night, designed to bring together those opposed to the system.

The public meeting, to be held at Trades Hall in Melbourne, will help attendees fight Centrelink debts and write submissions to the Senate inquiry.

The Senate inquiry will hold public hearings in early March.

Online Source: The Guardian

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