Thursday, 5 January 2017

#NotMyDebt: those who feel able begin to fight back

Those not overwhelmed by the less than transparent and sometimes aggressive approach Centrelink is taking to queries about or denial of debts being raised by its obviously flawed automated debt recovery process are beginning to push back.......

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SBS News, 4 January 2016:

Ngarrindjeri elder Elaine Kropinyeri from Mount Gambier in South Australia told SBS News Centrelink had recently cleared her of a $7800 debt, citing an “internal mistake”.

Ms Elaine Kropiyeri said she had not worked for two-and-a-half years after she resigned for “personal reasons” as a cultural consultant at a local foster care service in Mount Gambier, and successfully applied for Centrelink’s NewStart Allowance.

She said she discovered the so-called debt after Centrelink informed her she had been overpaid, in a separate matter, by $600. According to Ms Kropiyeri, Centrelink did not explain how the overpayment had been calculated, but deducted $464 from her regular payments towards the debt.

“It was absolutely terrifying…when you’re on a very meagre income, barely surviving,” she said.

Ms Kropiyeri found the $7800 in an obscure area of her MyGov Centrelink online account while trying to understand her debt notice. This figure, according to Ms Kropiyeri, didn't appear in the usual 'deductions' section.

“They didn’t even send me a letter,” she said.

“If I didn't accidentally come across it the way I did, they would still be deducting from my meagre income.”

Subsequently, Ms Kropiyeri received a statement on November 29 confirming her fears that the larger sum was in fact owing. With the notice showing $7154.52 was still to be repaid, she was able to work out Centrelink had been deducting part of her payment without her knowledge for this larger debt.

…… When Ms Kropiyeri enquired to Centrelink over the phone about the disputed amount owing, she said the staff member could not explain it.

“I am still unsure how this [debt] came to be because, as I said, I hadn't worked and did my reporting every fortnight.”

She was referred to a specialists team where a staff member said the onus was on her to explain the debt to Centrelink.

“But it’s [their] department that determines what overpayments that need to be distributed - I don’t have access to their computers.”

Because she was sure she did not owe any amount, she said she told Centrelink she would take her case to the Ombudsman's Office and ended the phone call.

Within half an hour they called her back to tell her the debt had been waived because of an “internal mistake”.

“I know my rights, so I stood up, tooth and nail, to them.”

* Last time I looked Ngarrindjeri elder Elaine Kropinyeri had been a resident in the Mt. Gambier area for over 30 years and was the inaugural recipient of the NAIDOC award for a lifetime achievement of contribution to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the South East in 2012.

Advice being offered in the media.......

The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 January 2016:

Graham Wells, principal lawyer at Social Security Rights Victoria, which provides legal advice and help for people battling various Centrelink complaints, says the organisation has been run off its feet in the wake of the debt-recovery saga plaguing the agency over the summer break……
So what should you do if you get a letter saying you owe the department money?
Mr Wells says in the first instance, people suspecting their debt assessment is incorrect should go to their nearest Centrelink office, the MyGov website or, "if you're willing to chance it, on the phone", and ask to have their debt reviewed.
Delegated decision makers within Centrelink, called Authorised Review Officers, are authorised to review department decisions on behalf of the minister. They might decide the debt does not exist, is correct, is too low, or is too high.
This can take between two and six months but Mr Wells suggested that, to speed things up, people could regularly call Centrelink to check on the matter, or go to their local MP and make regular representations there.
Mr Wells said if people were still not happy with Centrelink's internal decision-making processes, they could make an application under Freedom of Information laws for the department to release the documents it holds on their supposed debt to them.
"You want to be as specific as possible," he said. "Ask for all documents it holds relating to this debt between this and that date."
Debt collection agencies employed by Centrelink to recover debts have been applying a 10 per cent fee to recover debts related in inaccurate reporting.
"I think it's wrong; I think it's very entrepreneurial on their part," Mr Wells said.
It is, however, legal - although Mr Wells said consumers challenging their debts often had the 10 per cent fee set aside.
Mr Wells suggests that anyone faced with demands from a third-party for repayments go to their local post office and make the smallest repayment they can afford directly to Centrelink, to cut debt recovery agencies out of the loop. He said if it was later found their debt was invalid, Centrelink should return the money.
Finally, people can apply to the social services and child support division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which can review Centrelink decisions that have first been reviewed internally.
Victoria Legal Aid executive director of civil justice Dan Nicholson urged anyone who received a letter from Centrelink they believed to be incorrect to get free legal advice from Legal Aid or other organisations across the country.
"Even if you don't have all the information Centrelink asks of you, we advise you to respond to the letter, so you are able to push your side of the story," he said.
"If Centrelink does make a decision that you disagree with, such as you have a debt, I encourage you to challenge the decision – and you have a very good chance of success."
Internal Centrelink figures show that before the agency introduced its debt recovery system, 37.5 per cent of its decisions were revised after internal reviews.

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