Friday, 20 January 2017

Centrelink's monumental clusterf*ck continues

As the Turnbull Government response grows more heavy-handed, community resistance grows......
Crikey, 19 January 2017:
Just as Australians were ringing in the new year and the public campaign against Centrelink's massively scaled-up debt recovery program was beginning to pick up steam, a legislative change removed a time limit that meant a certain number of welfare debts used to expire.
Previously, unlike other debts to the government, notably those owed to the Australian Taxation Office, welfare debts would lapse if no action was taken to recover them in six years.
Agencies like Centrelink could fairly easily restart the six-year limit, by taking a basic action like opening the client's record and doing a basic review, but nonetheless it resulted in some debts expiring because the agency did not have enough resources to pursue them all.
From January 1 it was removed entirely by the Budget Savings (Omnibus) Act, shortly after the government asked Centrelink to identify and recover hundreds of thousands more debts than it ever has before by significantly decreasing the amount of administrative effort spent on each one.
The various pieces of legislation amended by the act now say welfare debt recovery actions can take place "at any time" and according to the act's explanatory memorandum:
"This will align social welfare debt recovery with the arrangements applied by other government agencies involved in the recovery of Commonwealth debts, where there is no such limitation.
" … Removing this limitation will prevent debts from 'ageing' out of recovery, and will improve the ability to recover old debts. Debt recovery will be able to commence at any time."
The Mandarin has heard a significant number of relatively senior Department of Human Services staff are under the impression that the removal of the six-year limit has opened up a very large number of potential debts to recovery action that were previously off-limits.
There's apparently a view in the agency that now there is nothing stopping the automated compliance program from going back through tax and welfare records "indefinitely" to find new debts to raise.
But an independent expert in social security law said this was not quite right; the six-year limit only ever applied to debts after they were raised. The clock started when the agency became aware of the debt (or when it reasonably should have — for example, if it was notified of an overpayment but failed to actually raise a debt for six years or more).
The legal interpretation was that Centrelink could always chase a debt from any time in the past — provided it could argue there was no reasonable way to have found out more than six years prior — but in practice it always raised more debts than it could recover, so it prioritised the biggest ones and did not go looking for new ones especially hard.
The Mandarin also understands that debts that expired after no action was taken for more than six years before the change on January 1 cannot be resurrected.
The further back Centrelink goes looking for past discrepancies between taxable income and support payments, the less chance there is that the people advised of potential debts will be able to produce payslips or other records to prove they were not overpaid.
The National Social Security Rights Network (previously the Welfare Rights Network) opposed the removal of the six-year expiry date. In a recent statement, it says a lot of people are contacting it in distress because they do not realise "the system does not necessarily require people to have documentation from many years ago" and think that "without it they cannot provide the information being sought" by Centrelink. The body recommends:
"If it continues, the system should be applied to the most recent financial years first. Many people would be able to readily check information against their recent records, reducing their distress and anxiety about the process. This would also give more time for Centrelink and other stakeholders to assess how the system is working and make a considered decision whether it is fair and reasonable to roll out for earlier years."
In any case, DHS spokesperson Hank Jongen told The Mandarin there are no plans to check the records any further back than six years ago:
"As part of the compliance measures announced in the 2015-16 budget, 2015-16 MYEFO and in the 2016-2017 MYEFO, compliance reviews will not be undertaken prior to 2010-11 financial year."

The Canberra Times, 19 January 2017:
Centrelink is deliberately ripping-off thousands of Australians caught up in its data matching "robo-debt" program, with managers telling public servants at the agency to enforce debts they know are bogus, according to explosive new claims…..
Pensioners and other struggling members of the community are being hounded for "recovery fees" unfairly added on top of their debts by Centrelink, according to the whistleblower's statement, published on Thursday by left leaning advocacy group Get-Up and Centrelink's main workplace union the CPSU.
The union says it has independently verified some, but not all, of the whistleblower's allegations.
The insider, who has defied public service bosses' threats on leaking against the program, also alleges that Centrelink managers are well aware that bogus debts are being pursued and are ignoring pleas from compliance staff to take a fair approach to the debt recovery process.
"We are struggling with our consciences and pushing back against our leaders daily," the whistleblower wrote.
"We are telling the...helpdesk that what we are doing is wrong.
"I see these reviews every day and I am horrified at what I am being directed to do."
Centrelink has been contacted for comment on Thursday morning.
The insiders alleges that the rip-offs operate in five main ways:
Doubling income​, where a person's entire income from the same employer is counted twice, creating an "overpayment".
Non-assessable Income, where​ money that should not be counted as assessable income by Centrelink is counted and overpayments raised against the victim.
Fictitious payments​; where system generates debts based on payments that Centrelink never made. The whistleblower alleges it is even possible to have a debt claim larger than a person's total Centrelink payment.
False recovery fees; recovery fees are being regularly applied when they shouldn't and can be much larger than the set fee of 10 per cent.  
Corrupted review​; compliance officers are directed not to fix these errors, even when there is evidence, and their work is rejected when they do.
But Centrelink media spokesman Hank Jongen denied the accusations in a statement posted online on Thursday, saying the claims about doubling income, non-assessable income, fictitious payments, false recovery fees and corrupted reviews were all incorrect.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 2017:
Public servants at Centrelink have been threatened with disciplinary action or even criminal prosecution as their bosses at the welfare agency try to stem the flow of internal leaks about the agency's "robo-debt" campaign.

Several workers have gone public about the debt recovery debacle since the controversy emerged last month and now Centrelink's parent department, Human Services, has issued a stark warning to its 36,000 staff about the consequences of leaking.

The department, which has gone to extraordinary lengths and expense in the past to track down and crush internal dissent, issued its latest warning on Tuesday after several media stories featuring insider accounts of the data matching program's failings.

Excerpt from whistleblower letter released by GetUp! on 19 January 2017:

The letter can be found at:

GetUp! creates FraudStop:
                        Click on image to enlarge

Get started here.

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