Tuesday, 28 February 2017

DHS & Centrelink now threatening clients who expose unfair or inappropriate implementation of social security policy?

Screenshot via @BernardKeane

Political reporter with @abcnews:

This Department of Human Services has just issued a pretty clear warning to Centrelink clients who want to public criticise #notmydebt.
ABC News, 27 February 2017:

Those who publicly criticise Centrelink's automated debt recovery program could have their personal information released to correct the record, the Department of Human Services (DHS) has warned.

Blogger Andie Fox wrote an opinion piece for Fairfax Media earlier this month claiming Centrelink "terrorised" her while chasing her for a debt she believed she did not owe.

On the weekend, Fairfax published an article from the Government's perspective, raising the prospect of Centrelink being "unfairly castigated".

In the article a spokesman for Centrelink commented on Ms Fox's personal information including her history of claiming the Family Tax Benefit and relationship circumstances.

A DHS spokesman said personal information could be released by the Government to correct public statements of complaints.

"Such disclosures are made for the purposes of the social security law or the family assistance law, they do not need to be formally authorised by the secretary," the spokesman said.

"Unfounded allegations unnecessarily undermine confidence and takes staff effort away from dealing with other claims.

"We will continue to correct the record on such occasions."

Labor's Linda Burney accused DHS of "deeply unethical actions" and the Government of seeking "revenge".

"The disclosure has occurred deliberately to smear a private individual who has spoken out about the error prone robo-debt program and the deeply flawed Centrelink debt recovery process," she said.

"Correcting the record is one thing, attempting to smear and discredit opponents is entirely different and far more troubling."

Ms. Fox's response can be found at https://bluemilk.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/is-this-what-happens-when-you-criticise-government/.

However, neither Centrelink nor the Turnbull Government can stop criticism being aired during - the rather wordily titled - Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs’ Inquiry into Design, scope, cost-benefit analysis, contracts awarded and implementation associated with the Better Management of the Social Welfare System initiative and mainstream media reporting.

The Canberra Times, 28 February 2017:

People pursued by Centrelink over its controversial "robo-debts" are being denied the protection of Australian consumer law, a Parliamentary inquiry has been told.

The welfare agency is exempt from laws and guidelines covering debt collection by private businesses, "even the much maligned banks", according to the chief executive of Victorian community organisation Family Care, David Tennant.

But Centrelink says that is, and the private sector debt collectors hired to pursue its clients, are compliant with legal requirements.

Mr Tennant, who has a background in consumer law, says much of Centrelink's activities in pursuing its millions of dollars in "robo-debt" would be illegal if done by a non-government player.

The legal immunity enjoyed by Centrelink allows it to "pressure people for payment in ways that are objectively unfair," Mr Tennant says in his submission to the Parliamentary inquiry into the robo-debt crisis……

In his submission to the inquiry, Mr Tennant, a former chairman of the national peak body for financial counsellors, say he is surprised by the "lack of commentary about how Centrelink's conduct stacks up against the normal rules applying to the collection of debts in Australia".

"There are significant problems associated with a government department pursing a course of action that would likely be illegal if adopted by a body other than government," Mr Tennant wrote.

"It potentially erodes the confidence of those who rely on the benefit system to treat them fairly, or to recognise them as having the same rights as all citizens.

Although I suspect that one of the reasons behind Centrelink supplying personal and perhaps sensitive client information to the media may be in order to produce a chilling effect on submissions made to this particular Senate inquiry.

This inquiry is accepting written submissions until 22 March 2016.
The inquiry reporting date is 10 May 2017.

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