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Senate committee recommends robo-debt be put on hold and drastically overhauled

A Senate Committee report into the Government’s Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (robo-debt) program has called for it to be put on hold until of the procedural fairness flaws in the program are addressed. The Committee a says the Government should re-assess all debts determined through the use of income averaging and that a redesigned system should include a robust risk assessment process.

The Community Affairs References Committee tabled it’s report into the issue today with 21 recommendations on how to fix the fundamentally broken program that has been rolled out since mid-2016.

“All over the country thousands of Australians who have accessed the social safety net in the last six years have been put through the traumatic experience of having to prove a debt that may not even exist”, Australian Greens Senator and Community Affairs References Committee Chair Rachel Siewert today.

“The evidence presented to the committee as it travelled across the country was compelling, consistent, and showed a program that was putting huge pressure on some of the most vulnerable members of our community.

“Procedural fairness is lacking in every stage of the robo-debt program; whether it be the forcing of people to reach back through their paperwork from six years ago, sending debt letters to the wrong address and/or not engaging with concerned recipients, or averaging out of income data, often producing incorrect results. The program must be put on hold until this systemic overarching problem is fixed.

The 21 recommendations also address the program's problem with calculating debt and where the onus lies, effective communication, applying additional fees, obstacles in recipients challenging debts, and the disturbing coercive tactics being used to retrieve debts.

“The Government should commit to debt consumer law legislation and guidelines, including in cases where they use external debt collectors.

“We heard time and time again of distressing tactics used by Centrelink and private debt collectors (who are on commission) in attempts to rake back potentially false debts. It seems in certain instances, getting the money back came above all else and was at the expense of the recipients mental wellbeing and financial stability.

“The committee has also recommended that guidelines are developed to consider appropriate levels of debt repayment to income ratios. Someone should not be more negatively impacted by a debt because they are on a low income.

“The Government should cease releasing the personal details of income support recipients and must update its privacy policy to ensure this. 

“The department should resume full responsibility for calculating the debts, and they should be based on fortnightly earnings, not an assumed average. Unless this is rectified, there will continue to be problems.

“Enough people have been hurt by this program which was designed to get money back quickly regardless of the impacts and whether it is legitimate debt. Urgent action needs to be taken by the Government before more harm is done”.

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