Showing posts with label robodebt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label robodebt. Show all posts

Saturday, 21 November 2020

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Morrison Government to settle 'robodebt' class action out of court reportedly for in excess of $1.2 billion

 

In July 2016 the Turnbull Coalition Government began to issue income compliance notices based on automated data matching to recipients of government cash transfers such as Job Seeker, Youth Allowance, Abstudy, Single Parent Payments and Family Tax Benefit payments.

At the time the then Minister for Social Social Services Scott Morrison expected to clawback an est. $1.7 billion dollars over five years from individuals who were, or had been in the past, receiving a Centrelink pension, benefit or allowance.


On social media and elsewhere the scheme began to be called 'robodebt' and unverified reports began to emerge of vulnerable people in receipt of large robodebts suiciding.

In February 2019 it was revealed that the Morrison Government had spent between $400m to recover just $500m from welfare recipients through the flawed 'robodebt' scheme.

By 2019 at least 570,000 of over 600,000 income compliance notices issued were considered to be unlawful. As were Australian Taxation Office garnishee notices associated with these alleged debts.


In November 2019 the Morrison Coalition Government called a halt to using automated data matching to calculate income compliance, as it was faced with at least one adverse court judgment and a forthcoming class action in the Federal Court of Australia.

On 29 May 2020 the Morrison Government announced that it now accepted that many debts raised under the 'robodebt' system were unlawful and, consequently, that it would refund 470,000 debts raised totalling $721 million to 373,000 people. This refund did not cover all members of the class action.

The class action was scheduled to go to trial on 16 November 2020.

Yesterday, Monday 16 November, came news that the class action had been settled out of court by the Morrison Government. Presumably in order that Morrison & Co. along with senior Social Security and Centrelink bureaucrats could avoid the possibility of having to give evidence in court, to avoid any legal admission of liability and, to avoid the risk of a detailed adverse judgment.

It seems that Scott Morrison's personal war on the poor and vulnerable, begun when he was Minister for Social Services and continued on during his time as Treasurer and now as Australian Prime Minister, has cost the federal government well in excess of  $1.2 billion when one factors in the federal government's legal costs and the pre-existing 'robodebt' scheme administration costs - including debt recovery agent commission payments.

Gordon Legal, media release, 16 November 2020:


Gordon Legal announces today the settlement of the Robodebt Class Action, subject to the approval of the Federal Court of Australia.


The settlement reached with the Commonwealth of Australia means that if approved by the Court, since the commencement of the Robodebt Class Action, more than $1.2 billion in financial benefit will have been provided to approximately 400,000 group members.


In settling the class action, the Commonwealth has not admitted that it was legally liable to Group Members. [my yellow highlighting]


KEY POINTS:


The total financial outcome achieved is made up as follows:

  • The Commonwealth has today agreed to pay $112 million in compensation to approximately 400,000 eligible individual Group Members, including legal costs;

  • The Commonwealth is repaying more than $720 million in debts collected from Group Members invalidly and will continue to provide refunds;

  • The Commonwealth has agreed to drop claims for approximately $398 million in debts it had invalidly asserted against group members of the class action;

  • Subject to Court Approval, a Settlement Distribution Scheme will provide that eligible individual Group Members’ entitlements will be assessed and all amounts due to them be paid in 2021.


Subject to approval by the Court, a notice setting out the details of the proposed Settlement Distribution Scheme and the Court approval process will be provided to all Group Members.


Gordon Legal Partner, Andrew Grech said:


We want to acknowledge the courage of the lead applicants; Katherine, Elyane, Steven, Felicity, Shannon and Devon, who led these proceedings on behalf of all Robodebt victims in pursuit of this class action, which has allowed this outcome to be achieved today.


Our clients have asked us to especially thank Bill Shorten for his relentless pursuit of this issue, for his compassion over the last four years for vulnerable Australians hurt by Robodebt and for bringing the case to Gordon Legal’s attention when it seemed that all other options had been exhausted and only resorting to the legal system would help.


Once again we would like to acknowledge the work of the legal team at Victoria Legal Aid, who worked tirelessly to bring a number of individual claims before the Federal Court before the Class Action was commenced as well as the efforts of many community legal services in the Welfare Rights Network, such as Social Security Rights Victoria who have been advocating for victims of Robodebt for the last few years.


Our clients would also like us to acknowledge the Federal Court of Australia for its preparedness to schedule frequent case management hearings and to facilitate a trial of the proceedings so quickly, notwithstanding the difficult circumstances of the Melbourne Covid-19 lockdown.”


ENDS –


For more information visit: https://gordonlegal.com.au/robodebt-class-action/robodebt-faqs/


Thursday, 4 June 2020

Like most political bullies 'Scotty From Marketing' Morrison runs away when he is publicly caught out


Crikey inq, 1 June 2020

Crikey inq, 1 June 2020: 

It’s been a while since Australian politics saw an act as gutless as Scott Morrison’s on Friday. 

Mere minutes after the prime minister finished another of his interminable post-national cabinet monologues and walked away from journalists, Government Services Minister Stuart Robert issued a media release revealing one of the most expensive backflips in Commonwealth history. The government would repay at least $720 million in fake debts it had “raised” against welfare recipients under the now discredited robodebt scheme. 

 At a media conference conveniently on the Gold Coast, rather than before the same journalists Morrison had just walked out on, Robert tried to claim he’d moved quickly to address the scheme’s flaws: “the information presented to me saw a change in November, I acted swiftly on behalf of the government to pause debt recovery and to refine the system.” 

Robert refused to apologise to the 373,000 victims (at a minimum) of the scheme. Christian Porter, appearing on the ABC yesterday, also refused to apologise. Both at least fronted the cameras. 

Scott Morrison ran away. 

Coward. 

This was Scott Morrison’s scheme, one he — the former social services minister — proudly boasted about as treasurer in the 2016 election campaign, claiming it would pump billions into the budget bottom line. 

Now it’s fodder for a Friday afternoon garbage dump, with junior ministers sent out to publicly eat the shit sandwich. 

It’s unlikely the scheme will ever generate a single cent of additional revenue, given the repayment, the likely compensation, the legal costs associated with a number of cases, and the extraordinary costs of implementing the supposedly automated scheme, including the siccing of debt collectors onto innocent welfare recipients. 

Morrison and his colleagues, and the Social Services public servants who devised and implemented the scheme, will be hoping to avoid accountability for the debacle, which goes back to a single fact: there was always a serious question mark over the legality of the mechanism at the heart of robodebt, income averaging. 

The government gave up pretending income averaging was lawful last November, just before settling the case brought by Deanna Amato in the Federal Court. 

Robert is trying to pretend that that was when the penny dropped about income averaging, and the government is refusing to say how long it knew about the lack of a legal basis for its flagship savings measure. 

As is now well documented, however, the lack of a lawful basis was clear from early on. 

Social security law expert Matthew Butt raised serious questions about the legality of income averaging in early 2017, noting the limitations on its use under legislation and that Human Services’ own guidelines recommend that averaging be used selectively. 

Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) member Terry Carney found that there was no legal basis for the debts raised at the same time, in decisions the government declined to appeal. The government instead dumped Carney from the tribunal while it stacked it with former Coalition MPs, staffers and party members. ....

Why did public servants prepare and implement a scheme they knew had a strong chance of being found unlawful? Was legal advice sought? Or did Social Services, like the Department of Health in the sports rorts scandal, refuse to obtain legal advice it knew would show there was no legal basis for the proposed actions? 

The financial cost of the debacle is only one aspect. Robodebt needlessly inflicted misery and anxiety of hundreds of thousands of Australians. The number of suicides caused by the receipt of automatically generated debt letters is unlikely to ever be known. 

Throughout, the bureaucrats involved have sought to stymie or evade accountability. In the most recent round of Senate estimates hearings, departmental officials like Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell refused to provide basic information, like the number of victims of income averaging, to a Senate committee. 

Similar obfuscation is likely to be used against attempts by the Senate to establish the crucial issue of how much Social Services knew about the unlawfulness of income averaging when the scheme was crafted in 2015, what advice was sought and what was communicated to the minister.....

Friday, 22 May 2020

North Coast Voices received a takedown notice on 19 May 2020


On 24 April 2018 North Coast Voices published a blog post title "Hank Jorgen and Centrelink unleash the dogs…..".

On 19 May 2020 the blog received a Google takedown notice for that particular post, effective immediately.

Now apart from its title, the post only contained one sentence of comment by North Coast Voices:

"Forget establishing that an actual debt exists – this is 2018 and come hell or high water the Turnbull Government wants to use Centrelink to prop up its financial bottom line in time for the May 2018 budget papers."

The remainder of the post comprised of extracts from two online mainstream media articles - one by journalist Alice Workman published by Buzzfeed and the other by journalist Noel Towell published by the Canberra Times. These extracts were followed by inclusion of five tweets politely critical of 'robodebt' and two links to NotMyDebt.

Both media articles are still online.

So what sin had North Coast Voices committed?

Well apparently it had used a BuzzFeed extract which mentioned a business called Detective Desk - an IT company whose services were used by at least one debt collection agency (Australian Receivables Ltd) whom Services Australia had contracted until 3 February 2021 to assist with debt management/recovery under the automated data matching Online Compliance Intervention System process aka robodebt.

One can deduce this because the 2017 Buzzfeed article now has a new headline and is prefaced by a grovelling apology which runs thus:

CORRECTION

An earlier version of this article, which was entitled 'Your private information is being sent overseas by Centrelink', included some statements about Detective Desk which were corrected and are retracted by BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed regrets these errors.

One has to wonder if the unknown person or persons who decided to chase up mention of this company and remove any part of the original Buzzfeed article from view after all these years was doing so because a class action is now underway in the Federal Court of Australia which may expose the full lengths that Liberal MP for Cook Scott Morrison, first as Minister for Social Services, then Federal Treasurer and finally as Prime Minister, went to in order to unlawfully claw back money from vulnerable welfare recipients.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Morrison Government expects to be forced to refund est. $555.6 million unlawfully taken from at least 449,500 Centrelink clients






In July 2016 the federal Coaltion Government began to issue income compliance notices based on automated data matching.

At the time the then Minister for Social Social Services Scott Morrison expected to clawback an est. $1.7 billion dollars over five years from individuals who were, or had been in the past, receiving a Centrelink pension, benefit or allowance.


By 2019 at least 570,000 of those over 600,000 income compliance notices were considered to be unlawful. As were Australian Taxation Office garnishee notices associated with these alleged debts.


Refunding these wrongfully raised debts would see at least $555.6 million returned to Centrelink clients.


Becoming a member of a class action does not expose a ‘robodebt’ recipient to any additional legal liability with regard to the alleged debt.

However, the Morrison Government is possibly hoping many victims will not realise this and sign the Centrelink Opt Out Notice – Federal Court of Australia – ‘Robodebt’(Social Security Debt Collection) Class Action (VID1252/2019) notices it is currently sending out.

Gordon Legal has outlined possible court dates:

On 6 March 2020 the Honourable Mr Justice Murphy of the Federal Court ordered that the parties hold a mediation prior to 19 June 2020. This is an opportunity for the matter to be resolved with the consent of both parties.

Justice Murphy also ordered that, if the matter does not settle at mediation, a trial will begin in the Federal Court on 20 July 2020 (or if that date is not available, on 21 September 2020).

Services Australia (formerly the Dept. of Social Services-Centrelink) despite its denials continues to raise alleged debts and send out notices.


The Guardian, 18 May 2020:

Hundreds of thousands of Australians affected by the government’s robodebt scheme will receive notices from Centrelink about an upcoming class action under orders from the federal court.

Guardian Australia last month revealed secret government advice showing the commonwealth hopes to settle the case and has privately admitted more than 400,000 welfare debts were unlawfully issued under the scandal-ridden “income compliance program”.

But the parties are yet to reach a settlement, setting up a potential trial as early as July where law firm Gordon Legal will seek interest and compensation as well as the repayment of debts unlawfully claimed by the government.

Under court orders issued in March, the government has been told to identify all potential class action members and send out notices via MyGov or by post about the upcoming court challenge by 25 May.

More than 12,000 people have registered with the firm, but under Australian law people identified as members of the “class” are considered part of the action unless they “opt-out”, which would allow them to pursue their own individual claim.

Labor’s government services spokesman, Bill Shorten, said the government should “settle this case immediately, restore public confidence in Centrelink by allowing the court to be the independent umpire, and pay the victims back their money as well as interest”.

This would allow the hundreds of Centrelink workers working on limiting the government’s robodebt exposure to be moved back to the frontlines of helping their fellow Australians with their social security needs in this time of national challenge,” he told Guardian Australia.

Since July 2015, more than 600,000 debt notices had been sent out under the scheme, which the government conceded was unlawful in federal court in November, while thousands more received letters demanding they prove they were not overpaid by Centrelink.

Some debt recipients had their tax returns seized over the debts, while others were also forced to pay a 10% “recovery fee” on top of the alleged debt.

Gordon Legal believes the case would represent one of the largest class actions in Australian history.

Late last week, the government declined to answer several written questions about the robodebt scheme, successfully applying for public interest immunity in the Senate.

Services Australia declined to answer how many debts had been issued using the unlawful “income averaging” method or whether it would repay victims, including debts recovered from deceased estates.

This question relates to a court case that is currently before the federal court of Australia,” the agency said. “Services Australia will abide by any decision of the court.”

But a ministerial submission to cabinet, leaked to the Guardian, revealed the government hopes to settle the case and that Services Australia expects to “administer 449,500 refunds determined under the programme”, worth $555.6m.

The robodebt class action notices come as the government pushes ahead with plans for an inquiry into class actions in Australia.

Porter last week claimed a “lack of regulation governing the booming litigation funding industry is leading to poor justice outcomes”.

But Labor has argued the inquiry is a response to Gordon Legal’s class action against the robodebt scheme.

If the parties do not reach a settlement, a trial is expected between July and September.

The government’s legal advice shows it expects to lose the class action under Gordon Legal’s claim of “unjust enrichment”, although it believes the compensation claim is less likely to be successful.

This is likely to result in the commonwealth being ordered to repay debts within a timeframe set by the Court, and to pay interest and legal costs,” the advice said.

Court documents show the number of potential victims expanded in March after the government withdrew an earlier claim that people receiving Carer Payment were not subjected to the scheme.

The government has conceded in court that debts that relied on income averaging were invalidly raised, but claims it should not have to pay compensation because it does not hold a common law duty of care to welfare recipients…...

Sunday, 9 February 2020

State of Play in Scott Morrison's Personal War On The Poor And Vulnerable: at least 9,600 angry people are taking on the federal government over 'robodebt'


These emails are just two examples of correspondance which has seen the light of day, concerning the legality of Morrison Coalition Government's Dept. of Human Services-Centrelink income compliance program or 'robodebt', since government made admissions in Amarto v The Commonwealth and was notified of an intent by certain persons to commence a class action arguing that the Commonwealth has taken money from Centrelink recipients unjustly.











The emails indicate the federal government's knowledge that sole use of the automated data matching system to calculate a 'robobebt' was unlawful. 

However they do not indicate exactly when the federal government became aware of this fact and Minister for Government Service & Liberal MP for Fadden Stuart Robert is refusing to disclose the exact date - in large measure because at least 9,600 people have now registered to take part in a class action being undertaken by Gordon Legal.

This class action asks the Federal Court of Australia not just to rule on the legality of 'robodebt', but also to determine whether the so-called collection fees levied by Centrelink should be refunded, whether those who have repaid all or part of those amounts should be paid interest and, whether the persons affected are entitled to compensation for any distress or inconvenience caused.

Gordon Legal has said it is pursuing the class action despite the government’s backdown, given that Centrelink has not promised to return the money taken from its clients nor promised to provide compensation for inconvenience and distress.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Australian Government admits that it has acted unlawfully since July 2016 with regard to the treatment of debt under its Centrelink income compliance program


On 27 November 2019 the Federal Court of Australia ruled in Amato v The Commonwealth of Australia that the use of data matching between Centrelink and Australia Taxation Office (ATO) records was not capable of providing proof that a debt exists under the Dept of Human Services/Centrelink Income Compliance Program ('robodebt') if that data matching was the only method used to establish such a debt. Therefore the debt was invalid.

The court also ruled that it followed that the garnishee notice given to the ATO was invalid and that the necessary preconditions conditions for imposition of a 10 per cent debt recovery fee were not met.  

The Federal Court made these orders, agreed to by both parties, after the Australian Government conceded that the averaging process using ATO income data to calculate the robodebt was unlawful.

Victoria Legal Aid has posted an explainer of this robotdebt case and its implications for other people who received a debt notice from July 2016 onwards.

Faced with three court cases, including a class action, on 19 November 2019 the Morrison Government finally admitted that automated data matching was a flawed tool, after mainstream media discovered and published the details of departmental email admissions to compliance staff. 

However, the Minister for Government Services has stated that government has no intention of abandoning this data matching scheme entirely. So welfare recipients must wait on the outcome of the class action in the hope that the Morrison Government will finally end its war on the poor and vulnerable.

The question remains as to how long has the Morrison Government has known it was acting unlawfully given it has finally admitted to receiving legal advice to that effect.

Friday, 22 November 2019

ROBODEBT: it's wonderful how the threat of legal action can energize the Morrison Government


Faced with three court cases which will inevitably expose the shaky ground on which the Centrelink income compliance program - aka robodebt - was built in July 2016, the Morrison Government now makes a limited, tactical response ahead of court hearings.

ABC News, 19 November 2019:

The Federal Government is immediately halting a key part of the controversial robodebt scheme to recover debts from welfare recipients and will freeze some existing debts, in what appears to be a major backdown in the operation of the scheme.
In an urgent email circulated to all Department of Human Services compliance staff today, seen by 7.30, the general manager of the debt appeal division wrote:
"The department has made the decision to require additional proof when using income averaging to identity over payments.
"This means the department will no longer raise a debt where the only information we are relying on is our own averaging of Australia Taxation Office income data."
The averaging process has long been one of the most controversial parts of the scheme.
Legal groups have said that it causes inaccuracies in the debt amounts, and wrongly shifts the burden of proof onto alleged debtors.
The email also sets out that the department would undertake a sweeping review of all debts where averaging was used.
"Customer compliance division will methodically work through previous debts identified as part of the online compliance program and respond to their requests for clarification," it said.
The department will also be writing to affected customers.
"For customers who are affected, the department will freeze debt recovery action as CCD identifies them and looks at each debt. The department will also write to affected customers to let them know," the email said.
7.30 has contacted the Minister for Government Services and the Department of Human Services for a response.

The Australian Minister for Government Services Stuart Robert was very careful in his wording of the change in approach to 'debt' collection as was wording on the Department of Human Services website.

It appears that little is altered with regard to robotdebt unless individual welfare recipients fall into the category of a) never having engaged with DHS/Centrelink after having received an initial notice informing them of an "income discrepancy"; b) also ignored any followup letters/emails
/texts/phone calls and c) whose alleged debt did not occur in a time period for which Centrelink still retains all documents concerning cash transfers made to the individual recipient.

It is only this category of welfare recipients who has never offered verbal or written information concerning the alleged debt, therefore they are the only persons who by Mr. Robert's reckoning may have had their alleged debt solely calculated by flawed data matching with the Australian Taxation Office.

The number of people who remain in this category after DHS/Centrelink's debt recovery program has been running for more than three years is not known - it could be as little as est. 6,500 or as many as est. 600,000 individuals.

Make no mistake, the Morrison Government will not easily abandon this lucrative stitch up of the poor and vulnerable.

In the 2018-19 financial year alone the total debt from income compliance activity was valued at $885.8 million and the value since the program began now totals $1.86 billion.

BACKGROUND

The Monthly, 19 November 2019:

Asher Wolf, one of the original grassroots campaigners against the robodebt program, says the government’s move is tactical. “Don’t trust DHS to act in good faith not to ramp up robodebt again. If you back off from challenging the government – for even a minute – on mendacious data-matching schemes, they’ll slide right back into old patterns of cruelty.”
Today’s move could even endanger the government’s projected return to surplus, which relies on some $2.1 billion in prospective debt recoveries under the robodebt program over the 2019–20 to 2021–22 period. “The Coalition’s AAA credit rating is balanced off raising preposterous, erroneous, illegal debts,” says Wolf. “I have no doubt the Coalition will come after the same people they always attempt to hurt: the poor and the vulnerable.”
Gordon Legal, website, 19 November 2019:
You may be aware that the so-called Robodebt issue has been widely reported in the media and has been the subject of both a Parliamentary Inquiry and a report from the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth Government does not appear to accept that the Debt Notices, issued by Centrelink on its behalf are invalid and that it has an obligation to repay the money it has already collected under the Robodebt Scheme.
Unless the Commonwealth agrees to change its position then our current view is that people with a claim of the kind broadly described above should pursue their rights by commencing a Group or Class Action.
ABC News, 17 September 2019:

A class action will be launched against the Government over the so-called robodebt scandal, arguing the Government's automated debt system is unlawful.

Key points:

  • Lawyers will argue the Government could not rely on the robodebt algorithm to collect money
  • The action will seek both repayment of falsely claimed debts and compensation for affected people, lawyers say
  • The Opposition says the robodebt billing practices are "verging on extortion"
Opposition government services spokesman Bill Shorten announced the action, which will be brought by Gordon Legal, and comes after sustained pressure on the Government over the system.
Peter Gordon, a senior partner at the law firm, said the collection of money based solely on a computer algorithm was unlawful.
"The Commonwealth has used a single, inadequate piece of data — the robodebt algorithm — and used it to seize money and penalise hundreds of thousands of people," he said
Read the full article here.

Victoria Legal Aid, 8 September 2019:

The Federal Court has been told that Centrelink has wiped the debt at the centre of a second test case against its robo-debt scheme. The case will go to a hearing in early December.
Our client, Deanna Amato has been told her robo-debt of $2754 had been wiped, after a recalculation process found the true overpayment to be just $1.48.
‘I'm happy that I don't have a big debt looming over me anymore, but on the other hand, I'm stunned that it was recalculated so easily after I took legal action’, said Deanna. 
‘Centrelink will make you jump through hoops to prove your innocence, but it turns out they were capable of finding out if my reporting was correct and that I didn't owe them anything like what the robo-debt claimed I owed. It makes me question the system even more’, she said.
The 33-year-old local government employee says Centrelink has refunded her over $1700, after they took her full tax return earlier this year. At the time, she had never spoken to anyone from Centrelink about the supposed debt.
‘It was scary when Centrelink took my tax return out of the blue. I had no idea what my rights were, or if Centrelink even had this kind of power over my money, so I turned to legal aid for advice.
‘Now that they have wiped the debts of both Victoria Legal Aid cases, it makes me wonder how many people have paid supposed debts that were completely inaccurate.  I hate to think of more people suffering because of incorrect calculations.
People may be handing over money they don't even owe, because they're too afraid, or don't have the means, to challenge them. That's why I think the system needs to change’ said Deanna.
Rowan McRae, Executive Director of Civil Justice Access and Equity at Victoria Legal Aid said our legal challenges to the scheme continued – ‘We cannot accept a system that is so clearly flawed and causing overwhelming hardship to the most disadvantaged people in our community.’
‘We are contacted every day by people who are feeling overwhelmed by this system that puts the onus on them to disprove debts. It is important that a court looks at the lawfulness of the process Centrelink relies on to decide that people owe them money’. said Rowan.
Deanna says she is keen to have the court look at the decisions that led to the debt being raised. ‘It turns out, when I was receiving Centrelink assistance, I reported my income, yet they still were able to raise a debt of almost $3000 and take my tax return. The fact that Centrelink wiped my robo-debt, does not change my feelings about this court case going ahead. The robo-debt process needs to be seriously examined,’ she said.
‘If I hadn't taken this legal action, I don't think Centrelink would have ever realised the problem with my so called ‘debt’, Deanna said.
Deanna Amato’s case will go to a hearing in December with our first client Madeleine Masterton’s to be scheduled for hearing after that case is determined. [my yellow highlighting]

Monday, 28 October 2019

The Dept. of Human Services incorrectly sent out 10,000 "accounts payable notices" and did not inform the welfare recipients of its error


Senior government officials have confirmed 10,000 'robodebt' notices were accidentally sent to welfare recipients in April 2019 when they were meant to remain on hold for review.

Departmental bureaucrats discovered the error within two days and placed the alleged debts on hold.

However, the department did not contact those persons who had received these 10,000 "accounts payable notices".

To date only 200 welfare recipients who received these improper debt notices have contacted the Dept. of Human Services/Centrelink.

That leaves 9,800 current and/or former welfare recipients probably worrying themselves sick over a debt it is highly likely they don't actually owe. Readers can listen to the short ABC report here:

https://abcmedia.akamaized.net/radio/local_sydney/audio/201910/pam-2019-10-25-robodebt-estimates.mp3

In addition to this error, in seeking recovery of money allegedly owed by welfare recipients Centrelink deliberately sent out debt notices to 169 welfare recipients who were already dead, while it also approached representatives of “deceased customers” in 515 cases.

According to The Guardian on 25 October 2019, in a recent Senate Estimates hearing the Department of Human Services has also not ruled out targeting age pensioners and other vulnerable people as part of the controversial robodebt scheme, saying any decision to expand the scheme in order to meet budget targets would be made “further down the track”.

On 3 October 2019 the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) informed the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into Centrelink's compliance program that:

ACOSS has held deep concerns about Centrelink's compliance program, otherwise known as robo-debt—which I will refer to here mostly in that way—since its inception. Despite some improvements to the implementation of the program, two fundamental design flaws remain inherent. One is the use of the averaging of ATO-reported annual income over the period someone has received income support, which is leading to incorrect calculations of overpayments. The other is the reversal of the onus of proof, which requires people to disprove alleged debts on the basis of very limited information. Under the current system, an individual's earnings data is matched with ATO data through an automated process. Where a discrepancy is identified, an individual is invited to confirm or update their income. This may go back some years and be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for people to obtain the necessary information from previous employers. Where they don't provide the relevant information, the department uses averaged ATO data as a default. The department does this in full knowledge that's it's unlikely to produce an accurate or fair outcome, which its own debt recovery guidelines indeed warn. 

At present, there is a lack of transparency about the proportion and the number of debts raised as a result of ATO averaging processes, so we urge the committee, as part of this hearing, to seek information from the department for public release to inform this inquiry and the broader public debate about the policy. The robo-debt scheme also shifts the work of verifying income onto individuals, work that used to be done by the department, as well as shifting the onus of proof. As such, individuals are required to obtain historic payslips, bank statements and other records going back up to six years. If they are unable to do so, they risk incurring a debt erroneously. We note that Centrelink's previous guidelines advised people to keep employment records for six months, in stark contrast to the six-year period over which robo-debt ranges. This is deeply unfair. 

In addition to these fundamental design flaws, we hold concerns about the role of third party private companies in the compliance system, both as frontline staff in private service centres and in private debt collection agencies. We understand that to date one in three robo-debts have been sent to debt collectors. Direct engagement with people, often on low incomes and facing a range of life stresses, about their financial situation requires sensitivity and technical expertise. It's not appropriate for these functions to be outsourced to private operators who sit outside Centrelink, while Centrelink itself remains grossly understaffed. 

There are a range of other factors that compound unfairness of the current system. The first is that the government has extraordinary powers to enforce the debt owing to it, including to ban people from travelling internationally to garnish their tax returns and to charge interest on debt load. The automatic imposition of a debt recovery fee on debts prior to June 2017 adds further insult to injury for people affected. There is higher rate of erroneous debts calculated through the flawed data-matching algorithm, many of which will not be challenged and so we have no way of knowing, in fact, how many are in error, and the higher cost of administering the program at a time when our government says it doesn't have funds available to address other urgent priorities in social security systems. 

Finally, we'd like to remind the committee of the human impacts of this policy. Around a million income discrepancy notices have been issued since 2015 and half a million alleged it. And while every person's situation is different and not everybody is in a vulnerable situation, we know these notices have caused deep distress and anxiety for many people who've received them. Despite some exemptions, we know that they have been sent to people with mental health problems, people who've experienced trauma, people recently bereaved, people who are currently living on very low payments, people who are in financial hardship and people who are homeless. We also know that the impact has been devastating for many of those people, and they are very concerned at reports that the government might seek to narrow the range of available exemptions. We urge the committee to ensure that they hear from people directly affected by this scheme in the course of these hearings, including as witnesses. 

In closing, improvements to the implementation of the scheme, which we do acknowledge have not cured the fundamental design flaws at its heart, continue to cause great harm and distress. We urge the committee, therefore, to recommend suspension of the program and its replacement by a more transparent, fair, accurate and humane system of debt recovery