Friday, 20 January 2017

#NotMyDebt: "Treating Australians like crap is going to get you crap poll results"

The “false debt” disaster rolls on, with the Turnbull Government attempting some window dressing in the hope of reversing bad polling., 16 January 2016:

AN Australian of the Year finalist has also become embroiled in the Centrelink debt recovery debacle, after being sent an incorrect debt notice due to the automatic debt recovery system.

Queensland medical researcher Dr Janet Hammill, who works voluntarily and lives off the age pension, was sent a debt notice for $7600, The Guardian reports.

The 76-year-old had reportedly received a $26,000 research over parts of 2011 and 2012, which she fully reported to Centrelink at the time.

But the system appears to have averaged the grant across 2012 and deemed her overpaid.

But Centrelink’s automated debt recovery system appears to have averaged the grant across all 26 fortnights of 2012, before deeming her to have been significantly overpaid.

Hammill said she had struggled to contact anyone at Centrelink.

“You feel so helpless, I mean for heaven’s sakes, you can look through my CV and see that I’m not helpless,” Hammill told The Guardian.

“But this puts you into another category of disempowerment. I can just imagine somebody who is not computer literate or is just managing to get by day to day, it’s just been so terribly frustrating,” she said.

“They made me feel as though I’m some sort of cheat, and I haven’t had an income since April 2012.”

Her story comes after whistleblowers revealed the “true horror” of the Centrelink debt recovery debacle, after a new poll showed the Turnbull Government took a hit over the ongoing saga.

A number of former Centrelink staff, who allegedly left over the debt recovery fallout, have written to independent MP Andrew Wilkie with reports that a high number of clients are suicidal over debt notices.

Other former workers have told of being given daily quotas of debt notices and being urged to work overtime and compete to haul in the most debts.

One single mother has told of having to start repaying an incorrect debt notice for $11,800 while she challenges the request.

Mr Wilkie has today written to the Commonwealth Ombudsman to report evidence from the whistleblowers, which he claims have described the “true horror” of what’s happening behind closed doors.

His letter, published on his website, outlines the insight of former staff members, including that employees are discouraged from questioning debts and from pausing debt repayments if customers are in financial hardship.

A “high” number of callers were contemplating taking their own lives, it said.

“The system’s a complete dud and must be fixed or binned,” Mr Wilkie said.

“Every day new cases of bogus debts are coming into my office which has received hundreds of complaints from people who have recounted deeply disturbing stories about Centrelink’s debt hunt.”

The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January 2017:

Centrelink public servants who ask too many questions about their agency's controversial "robo-debt" recovery effort are being "managed" out of debt recovery units, according to independent MP Andrew Wilkie.

The Tasmanian independent also alleges public servants are being played against each other by managers, competing for the highest daily quota of debt notices.

But Centrelink is unhappy with Mr Wilkie's letter to Ombudsman Colin Neave, with the agency saying on Monday the the allegations are inaccurate or misleading. 

Centrelink says there are no quotas and that Mr Wilkie's accusations about the management of mental health issues among clients were overblown. 

Mr Wilkie said the former public servants had reported problems with suicidal clients and a breakdown in the systems that were supposed to support them.

"The number of customers who report feeling suicidal is high," Mr Wilkie wrote.

"It has been reported to me that that over a period of days there was an error in the system so that calls transferred to social workers were instead transferred back to casual workers on the general phone line that have no training in suicide prevention."

The Guardian, 16 January 2016:

Asked in the ReachTel poll how “errors with the Centrelink automated debt recovery system” affected their vote, 49.8% said it made them less likely to vote for the Coalition compared with 14.4% who said they were more likely to and 35.8% who said it would not impact their vote.

Asked which should be the Turnbull government’s priority, a large majority (82.2%) nominated cracking down on international tax avoidance, compared with recovering debts from Centrelink overpayments (17.8%).

Respondents were asked given the “significant errors” in the system whether individuals should have to “defend themselves which may include accessing pay slips and employment records from up to five years ago”.

Most said the burden of proof should be on Centrelink (78.6%) not the individual (21.4%).

The poll was taken on Thursday after a week of revelations of taxpayer funded travel claims by ministers and MPs to attend sports events and Sussan Ley’s trips to the Gold Coast including one on which she bought a $795,000 apartment and two to attend New Year’s Eve events with multimillionaire Coalition donor Sarina Russo.

GetUp’s campaigns director, Mark Connelly, said the poor poll result was “no surprise” given revelations government ministers had been spending taxpayer funds on chartered flights and to go to polo matches “while sending tens of thousands of false debt-threat letters to everyday Australians”.

“Treating Australians like crap is going to get you crap poll results.”

ABC News, 16 December 2016:

The automated program — which compares Centrelink and Australian Taxation Office records — has issued 170,000 notifications since July with thousands of Australians incorrectly told they have outstanding debts.

After weeks of public criticism, Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has told his department to ensure welfare recipients can launch an internal review of their payments before debt proceedings are launched.

Disability pensioner Justin Burns last week told the ABC he disputed his debt and requested a review, but was still being forced to pay $40 a fortnight from his pension to repay the debt while the review was underway.

"I have had to borrow money off my parents, I have had to borrow money off my friends," he said.

"I thought, 'Holy, you know what, I don't believe I owe this money at all'."

Mr Tudge will also ensure Centrelink clients are informed of discrepancies in their accounts before being contacted by debt collectors.

"One of the issues has been that on some occasions, the address that Centrelink has on file hasn't been updated, so the first a person might hear about this is when there is a debt collector on their doorstop," Mr Tudge told 2GB radio on Monday.

"We are fixing that problem by ensuring that we use multiple different addresses, including a person's electoral roll address, to ensure they do get that letter and do get that opportunity to update their records."

Letters will now be sent by registered mail so Centrelink can track whether they have been received.

In some cases, the letter will be followed up with a phone call.

One client told the ABC they were contacted by debt collector Dun and Bradsheet about a $3,836 discrepancy, despite never being contacted by Centrelink.

Mr Tudge has also called on his department to simplify its language and ensure a contact number is printed on all notification letters, rather than being listed online.

Labor's shadow human services minister Linda Burney said the changes were a "stunning admission" given Mr Tudge's earlier claim the system was working.

"The system must be suspended until changes to make it fair are applied to everyone — that means those currently paying disputed debts should have the review completed before they are forced to pay," she said.

Unfortunately for Mr. Turnbull on 17 January 2017 The Sydney Morning Herald also carried news of his government's intention to expand this flawed debt recovery scheme:

The Coalition government is going to target more than 3 million of elderly and disabled Australians with its controversial Centrelink "robo-debt" campaign, Parliamentary documents show.

The mid-year economic forecast tables published last week shows the government has booked savings of $1.1 billion from data-matching the aged pension and another $400 million from the disability support pension.

The move will bring more than 3 million more Australians into the sights of the data-matching program, which uses an automated system to match information held by Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office and calculate overpayments.

But the policy has been beset by errors and has been hugely controversial with many of those targeted for debt recovery saying they are being hounded by commercial debt collectors for money that they do not owe…..

The data matching effort so far has been concentrated overwhelmingly on mostly young people who have received the dole or Youth Allowance, although evidence is emerging that students have also been hit heavily.

But the supporting tables to the government's mid-year financial and fiscal outlook, published on Thursday by the Parliamentary Budget office, reveal that Coalition policy is to massively extend the data matching effort to the more than 2.5 million age pensioners and about 800,000 disability support pensioners.

"Relative to the 2016-2017 budget, policy decisions are expected to decrease expenses on the age pension by $1.1 billion to 2019-2020 primarily due to measures to enhance the integrity of social welfare payments including expanding and extending data-matching activities with the Australian taxation office," the document reads.

The papers also reveal that the government believes it will slash spending on the disability support pension using the same methods.

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