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Local impacts of the Robodebt debacle

By Rebecca Vassarotti - 16 March 2017 10

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Last week a senate inquiry started examining the impact of the Department of Human Services’ roll out of the infamous ‘robodebt’ program which has seen thousands of Australians, including many in the ACT being asked to prove that they did not have a debt owed to Centrelink. While this program has been in place for some time, the Department has removed human oversight from the system and automation has reportedly resulted in a huge increase in debt notices being issued. Of these, it is believed about a fifth of people who have been targeted do not owe any debt. The process to query and dispute the debt is onerous and difficult, there are huge difficulties in contacting Centrelink, there are reports of Departmental staff being directed not to process reviews, and there are reports that debts have been forwarded to debt collectors before individuals were aware they even owed a debt (particularly given notification was done electronically).

The Inquiry has heard from many community services who are dealing with the fall out of this process. The ACT Council of Social Service provided detail of some of the impacts locally, including financial counselling services seeing a small cluster of people who have required support given the potential impact of the potential debt. They also reported that people have been contacting welfare and legal services to challenge the debts, and noted that local community services are dealing with the emotional fall out from people being told out of the blue that they have large debts. Key concerns they raised included reports that people are paying debts they don’t owe due to fear of retribution if they enter into a dispute with Centrelink and significant difficulties with the process of challenging these debt notices.

The majority of people who have been caught up in this process are those who have been moving in and out of employment. Beyond the specific problems with the debt assessment process, this points to the changing nature of employment in Canberra, which is reflecting trends across the country. Canberra is moving from a public service town to one where there are more and more people who are in precarious, casualised and part-time employment. As the ACT Council of Social Service pointed out in their evidence, there are not enough jobs to place our citizens that are willing and able to work – for example in January 2017 there were around 5000 jobs advertised in the ACT, while over 8000 people were looking for work.

The people impacted in Centrelink’s Robotdebt debacle are those who are trying to work but who are not able to find enough employment to earn a decent income. It demonstrates that there is a growing number of people in the Canberra region who do not have regular and stable employment. People need more than an income safety-net and are particularly vulnerable when they are caught up in these kind of actions. Locally we need to make sure that we have programs in place to support people affected by these types of actions. We need to support people through concession programs when income doesn’t stretch far enough to access essential services – particularly when they may be having to pay back alleged debts that are under active review. It means ensuring that there are financial counselling services available to help people with budgeting on very limited incomes that may be reduced because of inadvertent over payments in income support. It also means ensuring that people on low incomes can access legal services that can assist them to challenge debts that they may not owe.

I think we need to be doing much more locally to respond to the changing nature of work. What do you think?

What’s Your opinion?


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10 Responses to
Local impacts of the Robodebt debacle
1
Garfield 11:49 am
16 Mar 17
#

The robo-debt situation has been a complete stuff up. From what I’ve heard and read the system is using full year information on earnings from the ATO to raise debts against people who make claims based on earnings in particular fortnights. If its not enough to get someone high up in the Department sacked I don’t know what would be.

As to the changing nature of work, I think the Greens need to look at how many immigrants & refugees the country takes in vs how many unemployed people we have and advocate for a reduction in unskilled migration numbers. That should help reduce the number of people willing to work but unable to find it, and make it easier to identify those able to but unwilling to work.

2
Masquara 7:29 pm
16 Mar 17
#

I received a bizarre letter from the ATO asking for a “quarterly PAYG payment estimated at $2,000”. I thought it would be a straightforward matter to let them know that no, I am not a business but a common or garden public servant. So far: two webforms submitted. Response: phone calls at inconvenient times during the working day, messages asking me to call back, but the person who has given their direct number is always on voicemail – which hasn’t stopped them saying, “We’ve been making strenuous attempts to contact you on the phone and you haven’t been available”. I’ve asked them to send me a hardcopy letter telling me what they want to tell me over the phone. Why doesn’t the ATO have any email contacts? And in any case, when I get a phone call from an unlisted number asking for my personal details, how do I identify that it’s a bona fide ATO employee other than to phone them back? Presumably while all this is going there are black marks going up against my name in the ATO system… even though I don’t owe these guys a cent and this is all their fault.

3
bigred 7:13 am
17 Mar 17
#

Missing from this conversation is the personal impact on the DHS staff charged with implementing this deeply flawed project, assuming the function has not been moved to Armidale or similar regional outpost. Their personal pride derived from delivering fair outcomes must be at rock bottom. This must have a flow on impact on staff motivation and turnover.

4
dungfungus 1:47 pm
17 Mar 17
#

Masquara said :

I received a bizarre letter from the ATO asking for a “quarterly PAYG payment estimated at $2,000”. I thought it would be a straightforward matter to let them know that no, I am not a business but a common or garden public servant. So far: two webforms submitted. Response: phone calls at inconvenient times during the working day, messages asking me to call back, but the person who has given their direct number is always on voicemail – which hasn’t stopped them saying, “We’ve been making strenuous attempts to contact you on the phone and you haven’t been available”. I’ve asked them to send me a hardcopy letter telling me what they want to tell me over the phone. Why doesn’t the ATO have any email contacts? And in any case, when I get a phone call from an unlisted number asking for my personal details, how do I identify that it’s a bona fide ATO employee other than to phone them back? Presumably while all this is going there are black marks going up against my name in the ATO system… even though I don’t owe these guys a cent and this is all their fault.

No doubt you have complained to our all-Labor local MHR’s?

If you have never had any dealings with Centrelink then there are indeed some serious problems as their database must be seriously corrupted.

5
Garfield 2:42 pm
17 Mar 17
#

Masquara said :

I received a bizarre letter from the ATO asking for a “quarterly PAYG payment estimated at $2,000”. I thought it would be a straightforward matter to let them know that no, I am not a business but a common or garden public servant. So far: two webforms submitted. Response: phone calls at inconvenient times during the working day, messages asking me to call back, but the person who has given their direct number is always on voicemail – which hasn’t stopped them saying, “We’ve been making strenuous attempts to contact you on the phone and you haven’t been available”. I’ve asked them to send me a hardcopy letter telling me what they want to tell me over the phone. Why doesn’t the ATO have any email contacts? And in any case, when I get a phone call from an unlisted number asking for my personal details, how do I identify that it’s a bona fide ATO employee other than to phone them back? Presumably while all this is going there are black marks going up against my name in the ATO system… even though I don’t owe these guys a cent and this is all their fault.

A half decent accountant should be able to resolve this for you in 5-10 minutes.

6
dungfungus 3:44 pm
17 Mar 17
#

bigred said :

Missing from this conversation is the personal impact on the DHS staff charged with implementing this deeply flawed project, assuming the function has not been moved to Armidale or similar regional outpost. Their personal pride derived from delivering fair outcomes must be at rock bottom. This must have a flow on impact on staff motivation and turnover.

I think the DHS office is still at Tuggeranong which is a “regional outpost” in the eyes of at least the ACT Government.

No need to move it to Armidale.

7
JC 4:35 pm
17 Mar 17
#

dungfungus said :

bigred said :

Missing from this conversation is the personal impact on the DHS staff charged with implementing this deeply flawed project, assuming the function has not been moved to Armidale or similar regional outpost. Their personal pride derived from delivering fair outcomes must be at rock bottom. This must have a flow on impact on staff motivation and turnover.

I think the DHS office is still at Tuggeranong which is a “regional outpost” in the eyes of at least the ACT Government.

No need to move it to Armidale.

I think you will find it is regional in the eyes of the senior management of DHS who prefer to be at their offices in Forrest. Don’t blame them of course.

8
Rebecca Vassarotti 2:21 pm
18 Mar 17
#

Masquara said :

I received a bizarre letter from the ATO asking for a “quarterly PAYG payment estimated at $2,000”. I thought it would be a straightforward matter to let them know that no, I am not a business but a common or garden public servant. So far: two webforms submitted. Response: phone calls at inconvenient times during the working day, messages asking me to call back, but the person who has given their direct number is always on voicemail – which hasn’t stopped them saying, “We’ve been making strenuous attempts to contact you on the phone and you haven’t been available”. I’ve asked them to send me a hardcopy letter telling me what they want to tell me over the phone. Why doesn’t the ATO have any email contacts? And in any case, when I get a phone call from an unlisted number asking for my personal details, how do I identify that it’s a bona fide ATO employee other than to phone them back? Presumably while all this is going there are black marks going up against my name in the ATO system… even though I don’t owe these guys a cent and this is all their fault.

Thanks for sharing this story. With the wholesale move to electronic processing of government services I wonder if this will happen more often. People will use digital services if they save time and are convenient. When they create more work and confusion people justifiably get upset

9
Rebecca Vassarotti 2:27 pm
18 Mar 17
#

Garfield said :

The robo-debt situation has been a complete stuff up. From what I’ve heard and read the system is using full year information on earnings from the ATO to raise debts against people who make claims based on earnings in particular fortnights. If its not enough to get someone high up in the Department sacked I don’t know what would be.

As to the changing nature of work, I think the Greens need to look at how many immigrants & refugees the country takes in vs how many unemployed people we have and advocate for a reduction in unskilled migration numbers. That should help reduce the number of people willing to work but unable to find it, and make it easier to identify those able to but unwilling to work.

There are a range of reasons we are seeing a reduction in secure and stable work options. I think we need to understand the complexity and be wary of simple answers to complex problems. I don’t think we should blame one group for taking jobs from another group

10
Rebecca Vassarotti 2:29 pm
18 Mar 17
#

bigred said :

Missing from this conversation is the personal impact on the DHS staff charged with implementing this deeply flawed project, assuming the function has not been moved to Armidale or similar regional outpost. Their personal pride derived from delivering fair outcomes must be at rock bottom. This must have a flow on impact on staff motivation and turnover.

Its a really good point. The CPSU did provide evidence at the Inquiry about some of the impacts on staff. Its not their fault that they are being asked to administer a broken and unfair process

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