Showing posts with label #notmydebt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #notmydebt. Show all posts

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Tweets of the Week




Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Hank Jorgen and Centrelink unleash the dogs…..


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.

BuzzFeed News, 20 April 2018:

Tony Johnson says he received a threatening phone call last month from a private debt collector looking to recover an overdue Centrelink debt. Turns out, they had the wrong Tony Johnson.

Johnson told BuzzFeed News the call was from someone identifying themselves as working for a company called Australian Receivables. The caller told Johnson he had a Centrelink debt that needed to be repaid immediately.

As it happened there were two Tony Johnsons living within the same postcode, and the caller had contacted the wrong one.

Private debt collection agency Australian Receivables has a $2.5 million contract with Centrelink as part of the government's controversial robo-debt recovery program.

As BuzzFeed News revealed last week, the third party debt collectors work on commission based on the amount they recover from Centrelink clients, not a flat rate. The more money the companies collect, the bigger their commission.

Tony Johnson claims he was called continuously by people purporting to represent Australian Receivables. He also says neighbours and family members were approached in a bid to track him down.

"It gets annoying after a while," he told BuzzFeed News.

Johnson says he contacted Australian Receivables to find out how they got his phone number, and was told it was via a company called Detective Desk.

Detective Desk is registered in the United States but operates from the Philippines. The company claims to own information about millions of Australians.

Detective Desk allows debt collection agencies to trawl data files to track and chase outstanding debts from Centrelink clients.

The Detective Desk website says it collects, holds, uses and discloses information about Australians including full names; dates of birth; driving licence numbers; gender; current and previous addresses; court judgements; employment histories; phone numbers; and any other information it says is publicly available.

The company sources and collects data from a number of third parties including search engines, social media networks, electoral rolls, insurers, law courts and direct marketing companies.

There's no guarantee the information supplied is correct, and that's how Johnson believes he became the victim of mistaken identity.

BACKGROUND

The Canberra Times, 9 June 2017:

Centrelink's controversial robo-debt program has been blamed for a huge surge in legal challenges by people facing the welfare agency's demands for money.

Centrelink debt cases at the federal appeals tribunal have soared by more than 50 per cent since mid-2016 and The Greens have laid the blame for the surge, which might take years to work its way through the system, squarely at the feet of robo-debt.

For more examples go to  
https://twitter.com/not_my_debt 
or 
https://www.notmydebt.com.au/stories/notmydebt-stories

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The only Australians who do not recognise the cruel farce that is 'robo-debt' are right-wing politicians, ideologues and the just plain ignorant


“It is trite maths that statistical averages (whether means or medians) tell nothing about the variability or otherwise of the underlying numbers from which averages are calculated. Only if those underlying numbers do not vary at all is it possible to extrapolate from the average a figure for any one of the component periods to which the average relates. Otherwise the true underlying pattern may be as diverse as the experience of Australia’s highly variable drought/flood pattern in the face of knowledge of ‘average’ yearly rainfall figures. Yet precisely such a mathematical fault lies at the heart of the introduction from July 2016 of the OCI machine-learning method for raising and recovering social security overpayment debts. This extrapolates Australian Taxation Office (‘ATO’) data matching information about the total amount and period over which employment income was earned, and applies that average to each and every separate fortnightly rate calculation period for working-age payments.”  [Terry Carney AO, UNSW Law Journal, Vol 42 No 2, THE NEW DIGITAL FUTURE FOR WELFARE: DEBTS WITHOUT LEGAL PROOFS OR MORAL AUTHORITY?, p2]

The Canberra Times, 5 April 2018:

The Coalition government's "robo-debt" program has been unlawfully raising debts with welfare recipients, wreaking "legal and moral injustice", a former administrative appeals tribunal member has said.

Emeritus professor of law at the University of Sydney Terry Carney, who was on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal for 40 years and was its longest serving member until finishing in September, has weighed into the debate over the controversial debt collection method saying the Department of Human Services has no legal basis to raise debts when a client fails to ‘disprove’ they owe money.

While Professor Carney urged it be made to comply with the law, the DHS rejected his comments, saying its Online Compliance Intervention program was consistent with legislation.

"Robo-debt" - the subject of a Commonwealth Ombudsman report and a Senate inquiry recommending sweeping reforms to the program - was at the centre of a maelstrom of controversy last year and remains loathed by critics calling for change….

Writing in the UNSW Law Journal last month, he said that despite the DHS' stance it remained responsible for calculating debts based on actual earnings, not assumed averages.

“Centrelink’s OCI radically changed the way overpayment debts are raised  by purporting to absolve Centrelink from its legal obligation to obtain sufficient information to found a debt in the event that its ‘first instance’ contact with the recipient is unable to unearth information about actual fortnightly earnings. As noted by the Ombudsman, the major change was that Centrelink would ‘no longer’ exercise its statutory powers to obtain wage records and that the ‘responsibility’ to obtain such information now lies with applicants seeking to challenge a debt. Writing a little later, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee challenged this, contending that
6.13 It is a basic legal principle that in order to claim a debt, a debt must be proven to be owed. The onus of proving a debt must remain with the department. This would include verifying income data in order to calculate a debt. Where appropriate, verification can be done with the assistance of income support payment recipients, but the final responsibility must lie with the department. This would also preclude the practice of averaging income data to manufacture a fortnightly income for the purposes of retrospectively calculating a debt. …”  [Terry Carney AO, UNSW Law Journal, Vol 42 No 2, THE NEW DIGITAL FUTURE FOR WELFARE: DEBTS WITHOUT LEGAL PROOFS OR MORAL AUTHORITY?, pp3-4]

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

CENTRELINK ROBO-DEBT: the nightmare continues


Given that the Turnbull Government continues to apply a faulty algorithm to Centrelink debt collection in 2018, private debt collectors remain financially incentivised to aggressively chase debts which may not actually exist, former welfare recipients may still receive debt recovery fee demands and government intends to expand collection to other groups/forms of declared income, while Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge is yet to fix the problems with ‘phone wait times, perhaps a reminder of what the title Online Compliance Intervention actually hides and what the alternative term robo-debt  describes……..

Cory Doctorow writing in Boing Boing, 1 February 2018:

In a textbook example of the use of big data to create a digital poorhouse, as described in Virginia Eubanks's excellent new book Automating Inequality, the Australian government created an algorithmic, semi-privatised system to mine the financial records of people receiving means-tested benefits and accuse them of fraud on the basis of its findings, bringing in private contractors to build and maintain the system and collect the penalties it ascribed, paying them a commission on the basis of how much money they extracted from poor Australians.

The result was a predictable kafkaesque nightmare in which an unaccountable black box accused poor people, students, pensioners, disabled people and others receiving benefits of owing huge sums, sending abusive, threatening debt collectors after them, and placing all information about the accusations of fraud at the other end of a bureaucratic nightmare system of overseas phone-bank operators with insane wait-times.

GillianTerzis writing in Logic, a magazine about technology, 2017:

Automation is dehumanizing in a literal sense: it removes human experience from the equation. In the case of the robo-debt scandal, automation also stripped humans of their narrative power. The algorithm that generated these debt notices presented welfare recipients with contrasting stories: the recipients claimed they’d followed the rules, but the computer said otherwise.

There were few official ways to explain one’s circumstances: twenty-nine million calls to Centrelink went unanswered in 2016, and Centrelink’s Twitter account seems explicitly designed to discourage conversational exchange. One source of narrative resistance is notmydebt.com.au, a website run entirely by volunteers that gathers false debt stories from ordinary Australians so that the “scandal can't be plausibly minimised or denied.”

Over time it was revealed that many of these debts were miscalculated or, in some cases, non-existent. One man I’d read about was on a government pension and saddled with a $4,500 bill, which was revised down months later to $65. Another recipient, who was on disability as a result of mental illness, had a debt notice of $80,000 that was later recalled. A small proportion of recipients were exclusively in contact with private debt collectors and received no official notice from Centrelink at all.

Soon it emerged that social services were a lucrative avenue for corporate interests: this year’s Senate inquiry revealed that some private agencies tasked with recouping debts were working on a commission basis, pocketing a percentage of the debts they had recovered for the government regardless of their validity. (All debt notices issued by private agencies were eventually rescinded after government review in February 2017.)

The methodology of the algorithm itself was riddled with flaws. It calculates the average of an individual’s annual income reported to the Australian Tax Office …..and compares it with the fortnightly earnings reported to Centrelink by the welfare recipient. All welfare recipients are required to declare their gross earnings (income accrued before tax and other deductions) within this fourteen-day period. Any discrepancy between the two figures is interpreted by the algorithm as proof of undeclared or underreported income, from which a notice of debt is automatically generated.

Previously, these inconsistencies would be handled by Centrelink staff, who would call up your employer, confirm the amount you received in fortnightly payments, and cross-index that figure with the one calculated in the system. But the automation of the debt recovery process has outsourced authority from humans to the algorithm itself.

It’s certainly efficient: it takes the algorithm one week to generate 20,000 debt notices, a process that would take up to a year if done manually. But it’s not a reliable method of fraud detection. It’s blunt, unwieldy, and error-prone. It assumes that variations in the data sets are deliberate, and that recipients have received more than what they are entitled to. What’s more, the onus is on the welfare recipient to prove their income has been reported correctly and that the entitlements they have received are commensurate within twenty-one days.

Yet, as many critics have noted, this income-averaging method is porous. It fails to accurately account for the fluctuating fortunes of casual or contract workers, which often results in variations between the two figures. There’s also no way for the algorithm to correct for basic errors in the system’s database. It cannot yet discern whether an employer’s legal name has been used instead of its various business names—it treats them as separate entities, and therefore separate sources of income—or whether conflicting reports are caused by basic mistakes, such as spelling errors or typos. These seemingly small distinctions are ones that only a human could make. It’s no wonder, then, that conservative estimates of its error rate hover at 20 percent……

Yet the irony of stigmatizing welfare recipients is that better-off Australians are major beneficiaries of social spending. The Australian writer Tim Winton notes that the country’s middle class has “an increasing sense of entitlement to welfare,” which is “duly disbursed largely at the expense of the poor, the sick, and the unemployed.” These include tax concessions on contributions to “superannuation,” which are funds designed to help Australians save for their retirement. Such concessions are distortionary: they’re levied at a flat rate of 15 percent, rather than at a progressive rate according to one’s income, which means their benefits are reaped overwhelmingly by the rich.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates that nearly one third of these concessions are claimed by the top 10 percent of income earners in Australia. Then there are policies like negative gearing, a tax concession that allows you to claim a deduction against your wage income for losses generated by any rental properties you own. (Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the world to hold such a policy.) In addition, Australian homeowners are entitled to a capital gains tax discount of 50 percent once the property is sold.

Critics have argued that the combination of these two policies only serves to fuel investor speculation, entrench housing unaffordability, and lock first-time home buyers out of the market. But it’s easier to attack the poor than to tax the rich.


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In July 2016 the Department of Human Services (DHS) - Centrelink launched a new online compliance intervention (OCI) system for raising and recovering debts. The OCI matches the earnings recorded on a customer’s Centrelink record with historical employer-reported income data from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Parts of the debt raising process previously done manually by compliance officers within DHS are now done using this automated process. Customers are asked to confirm or update their income using the online system. If the customer does not engage with DHS either online or in person, or if there are gaps in the information provided by the customer, the system will fill the gaps with a fortnightly income figure derived from the ATO income data for the relevant employment period (‘averaged’ data). 

Since the initial rollout of the OCI, the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office has received many complaints from people who have incurred debts under the OCI. This report examines our concerns with the implementation of the OCI, using complaints we investigated as case study examples. 

We acknowledge the changes DHS has made to the OCI since its initial rollout. The changes have been positive and have improved the usability and accessibility of the system. However, we consider there are several areas where further improvements could be made, particularly before use of the OCI is expanded. We have made several recommendations to address these areas......

Planning and risk management

In our view, many of the OCI’s implementation problems could have been mitigated through better project planning and risk management at the outset. This includes more rigorous user testing with customers and service delivery staff, a more incremental rollout, and better communication to staff and stakeholders. DHS’ project planning did not ensure all relevant external stakeholders were consulted during key planning stages and after the full rollout of the OCI. This is evidenced by the extent of confusion and inaccuracy in public statements made by key non-government stakeholders, journalists and individuals.

A key lesson for agencies and policy makers when proposing to rollout large scale measures which require people to engage in a new way with new digital channels, is for agencies to engage with stakeholders and provide resources for adequate manual support during transition periods. We have recommended DHS undertake a comprehensive evaluation of the OCI in its current form before it is implemented further and any future rollout should be done incrementally.

Centrelink website, 5 February 2018:

If you don’t pay your debt by the due date, we may ask the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to send us your tax refund. If we do we’ll send you a Recovery of your Centrelink debt letter.

If you aren’t repaying your debt over time or if we haven’t agreed to extend the payment time, we may also:

* add an interest charge to your debt

* refer your debt to an external collection agency

* reduce your income support payments to help pay the amount owing

* recover the amount from your wages, other income and assets, including money you may hold in a bank account

* refer your case to our solicitors for legal action

* issue a Departure Prohibition Order to stop you from travelling overseas....

The rate of interest we apply to your debt is consistent with the current rate applied by the ATO to tax debts. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

So how much Centrelink client debt was not debt at all in 2015-16 & 2016-17?


Australian Minister for Social Services Christian Porter is quick to point the finger but often very slow with concrete answers, so it is always a boon when annual departmental reports are published.

In September 2017 the latest DSS annual report was published.

Although carefully disguised in the wording "waived or written off"; by adding the 2016-17 annual report's financial statements together with the previous year’s annual report, one finds that the admitted amount of false client debt generated by Centrelink’s disastrous attempt to match Australian Taxation Office data with its own client records could possibly be as high as $264.645 million over a two financial year period.

As challenging a Centrelink debt letter was a distressing and often extremely difficult obstacle course for many welfare recipients, these hundreds of millions of dollars represent the determination of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians to fight back against false claims made on their wallets by government and the besmirching of their reputations.

On 26 October 2017 The Canberra Times reported that; Human Services official Jason McNamara told a Senate estimates hearing that in 202,000 cases where the department finalised the debt amount, 49,000 welfare recipients who received letters since the 'robo-debt' program started in July 2016 were found to owe nothing.

That means that 25.25% of these 202,000 debt notices were false claims as the Centrelink client was found to owe nothing.

In July and August this year Centrelink sent out a total of 114,000 debt letters.

At least est. 28,785 of these letters will probably represent a false claim of debt.

I hope all Centrelink clients who received one of these letters are querying each and every one.

BACKGROUND

Monday, 2 October 2017

Centrelink sent out 19,980 incorrect debt notices in just eight months


Australian Parliament, PARLWORK, Question Details:

Question asked of the Minister for Human Services and Liberal MP for Aston Alan Tudge on 31 May 2017:

How many Centrelink clients who were notified of a debt or the likelihood of a debt with Centrelink through its Online Compliance Intervention system, have subsequently had their debt (a) reduced, and (b) cancelled completely.
Could he provide a breakdown of parts (1)(a) and (b) by (a) state and territory, and (b) postcode.

One hundred and three days later the Minister deigned to reply:

THE HON ALAN TUDGE MP - The answer to the honourable member’s question is as follows:
1(a), 1(b) and 2(a) The number of debts reduced to zero and reduced but not to zero in total, by State and Territories as at 31 March 2017:
State
Debt Reduced to Zero1
Debt Reduced but not Zero1, 2
ACT
                                100
                  169
NSW
                            2,234
              3,644
NT
                                  40
                    79
QLD
                            1,665
              2,718
SA
                                630
              1,142
TAS
                                247
                  397
VIC
                            1,894
              3,306
WA
                                646
              1,069
Total
                            7,456
            12,524
¹The month the change is reported is the month the reassessment or review of the debt was completed which may be different to the month the debt was raised.
2Debts can be reassessed multiple times. This is recorded each time as a reassessment in the appropriate month.

2(b) The breakdown by postcode is at Attachment A. To protect individuals’ privacy, cell sizes of less than five are represented as “<5”.

What it has taken the Turnbull Government so long to admit is that 37.31 per cent of the 19,980 incorrect debt notices sent out between 1 July 2016 and 31 March 2017 were manifestly false debts.

In the same period a further 62.68 per cent of the 19,980 incorrect debt notices had amounts owed reduced – sometimes to under $20.

What these figures do not reveal is the total number of people who received a debt notice over these eight months and the number who paid the original amount listed on the debt notice because they were afraid to challenge Centrelink even though they personally doubted that any money was owed.

Nor is there any indication of how many Centrelink clients were referred to aggressive private debt collectors by the department.

What is known was that 1,569,911 people were sent debt notices in the 2016 calendar year alone [Commonwealth Ombudsman—Department of Human Services: Centrelink’s automated debt raising and recovery system].

Of these 20 per cent were admitted by the Dept. of Social Services to be false debts and 80 per cent were recoded as debts against a Centrelink client resulting in $300 million repaid by welfare recipients over a six month period [Minister for Social Security and Liberal MP for Christian Porter, transcript, 4 January 2017].

A total of 216,000 debt notices were generated in the three months leading up to Christmas 2016 and 133,078 alleged debts were recovered.

The Turnbull Government expects to claw back a total of $4 billion from welfare recipients by 2021.

The number of suicides as a result of a Centrelink debt notice is also unknown to date, although at least one recorded death had Centrelink debt as a contributing factor.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Quotes of the Week


Those who ignore history are condemned to retweet it. 
[David Brooks writing in The New York Times on 8 April 2017]


The algorithm purportedly used by the Department to match business names between the ATO dataset and Centrelink data was leaked to the media, and I undertook an analysis of it. This algorithm is breathtakingly naïve and will result in incorrect matches for common situations such as typographical errors, misplaced punctuation, and the legal entity name being different from the business trading name. The potential for mismatches is significant. Various more sophisticated fuzzy matching algorithms are readily available. [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, Submission 38]

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Australian Dept. of Human Services and Centrelink sink to a new low


An automated Dept. of Human Services-Centrelink debt recovery system that launched an est. 230,000 investigations into client welfare paymentsin 2016-17, then used an error-prone “income averaging” method to decide that more than 133,000 clients had incurred a debt owed to Centrelink and sent them a bill which included a recovery fee.


During this entire debacle spokespersons for the Turnbull Government, the Department and Centrelink have attempted to mislead and misinform welfare clients, mainstream media and the general public.

Now we have been told that for months, perhaps years, the software program being used by Centrelink to run its access to online services portal left users vulnerable to phishing attacks which can steal their credentials including names, addresses, bank account details.

If this is yet another example of the innovative and agile government information technology Liberal and National Party MPs boast about - then gawd help us all!

Comment  on office of the Minister for Human Services, Mr Alan Tudge

By an IT consultant.......


That Victorian Legal Aid saw it necessary to update its advice to clients to warn them that their personal information is no longer safe with the Department is an extraordinary situation. This is not advice from tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists. This is sober advice from legal professionals that a major part of the Australian Government cannot be trusted. I cannot stress enough how bad this is.

This behaviour from the Department has had a chilling effect, as I believe it was intended to. This chilling effect is not theoretical. I have personally spoken to individuals who have been reluctant to speak out against the Department, either to the media or to this Inquiry, because they fear repercussions from the Department as they are dependant in some way on income support.

At one point I discussed these matters with the office of the Minister for Human Services, Mr Alan Tudge, and was alarmed to discover that his office did not share my view that the Department has an asymmetric power advantage over individuals. They were of the view that if an individual is critical of the Department in the media, they become fair game.

The attitude from Mr Tudge’s office appeared to be one of a siege mentality where they were at a substantial disadvantage despite the vast array of resources at their disposal, particularly when compared to an individual reliant on income support. They felt that there had been a lot of false information being reported in the media and that it was time for them to “start fighting back.” This adversarial attitude, coupled with the astounding levels of secrecy from the Department, indicates major cultural issues in the Department and in the responsible Minister’s office.

The Department of Human Services exists to serve the humans in our society. The clue is in the name of the department. If individuals within the Department are unhappy with their role, then they should be encouraged to seek employment elsewhere.

By a Queen's Counsel.......

ABC News, 3 April 2017:

One of Australia's leading criminal barristers believes Human Services Minister Alan Tudge — or one of his staff — may have broken the law by supplying a journalist with a Centrelink client's personal information.

Robert Richter, a Queen's Counsel and former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, believes the disclosure could lead to a prison sentence if it is tested beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal court.

Mr Tudge has dismissed the legal advice, saying the disclosure was approved by his department's lawyers and was necessary to correct misleading public statements.

"I received clearance to release the information from the Chief Legal Counsel of the Department of Human Services, who is intimately across the details of the case and the relevant laws."

Mr Richter's advice was commissioned by Labor MP Linda Burney and his findings were based on public information, rather than inquiries with Mr Tudge's office.

In his opinion, it is "reasonably clear that either the Minister or one of his office's staff had committed an offence".

"We cannot presently put it higher without knowing precisely the content of the information that was disclosed and by whom it was disclosed," Mr Richter said……

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Shorter Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Richard Glenn: yes, it was a #CentrelinkFAIL


Commonwealth Ombudsman, media release, 10 April 2017:

Ombudsman publishes report on Centrelink’s automated debt system

Acting Commonwealth Ombudsman Richard Glenn today released a report into the Department of Human Services – Centrelink’s (DHS) implementation of the automated debt system known as the Online Compliance Intervention (OCI).

‘We found there were issues with the usability and transparency of the system. There were deficiencies in DHS’ service delivery and communication to customers and staff when implementing the system. These issues affected the quality of decisions made by the OCI. Many of these problems could have been reduced through better project planning, system testing and risk management,’ Mr Glenn said.

Since the Ombudsman’s office began its investigation in January 2017, DHS has made positive changes to the system, in response to the office’s feedback.

‘However more improvements are needed to ensure the system reflects good public administration,’ Mr Glenn said.

The Ombudsman’s office made recommendations in the report about clearer letters and system messaging to customers, more help for customers when gathering income information, improving service delivery and communication, more assistance and support for vulnerable customers and reviewing automated recovery fee decisions.

DHS and the Department of Social Services (DSS), which is responsible for the relevant legislation and policy, responded positively to the Ombudsman’s investigation, agreeing to all recommendations.

Mr Glenn said the Ombudsman’s office would continue to work closely with DHS and DSS to monitor the implementation of the recommendations in this report. He also acknowledged DHS’ assistance during the investigation.

The Ombudsman will make no further comment on the report.

Excerpts from the 110 page report illustrating just some of the shortcomings in Centrelink’s automated debt recovery program:

We asked DHS whether it had done modelling on how many debts were likely to be over-calculated as opposed to undercalculated. DHS advised no such modelling was done.16 In our view the absence of modelling means DHS cannot say how many debts may be under-calculated or overcalculated and by what margin.

The risk of over-recovering debts from social security recipients and the potential impact this may have on this relatively vulnerable group of people, warrants further consideration by DHS. We suggest DHS test a sizeable sample of debts raised by the OCI. The samples should include people who did not respond to the initial letter, as well as people who went online and people who contacted DHS via other channels. We also suggest DHS re-evaluate where the risk for debts calculated on incomplete information should properly lie and investigate whether there are ways to mitigate this risk……

In the OCI, the automatic application of the ten per cent recovery fee occurs when there is no contact from the customer, or the customer specifically indicates they did not have personal factors which affected their ability to accurately declare their income. 3.8 This raised concerns for customers who may not have had an adequate opportunity to provide a reasonable excuse, for example if they did not receive the initial letter, or did not understand the connection between reasonable excuse and the recovery fee.

In the initial letters used from July 2016, customers were warned a recovery fee may be applied, however there was no information in the letter about the ‘reasonable excuse’ exception. DHS advises that an explanation of ‘reasonable excuse’ was added from August 2016. However, reminder letters and debt notification letters did not include this information. A copy of these letters can be found at Appendix D.

In response to concerns raised by our office, DHS will no longer apply the fee automatically where there is no contact from the customer, or the customer responds that they had personal factors which affected their ability to accurately declare their income. DHS has taken steps to ensure that customers receive the initial letter, including the use of registered post……

Our investigation revealed the letters DHS sent to customers before 20 January 2017 to alert them about the income discrepancy were unclear and deficient in many respects. The letter did not include the 1800 telephone number for the compliance helpline. It did not explain that a person could ask for an extension of time or be assisted by a compliance officer if they had problems. It asked the person to ‘confirm’ their income information, possibly giving the impression that, if the figure was the correct annual figure, merely confirming the information would suffice. The letter did not provide a clear explanation that applying ATO income to the person’s record may negatively affect the amount of any debt. Copies of these letters are at Appendix D……

We received other complaints where people were told by DHS staff that payslips were the only acceptable form of evidence and bank statements would not be accepted. In our view, DHS should have more clearly communicated to customers the evidence they needed to provide, and what they could do if they had problems obtaining this evidence. In particular, DHS should have given customers a clearer and more consistent message that it would accept alternative forms of evidence, such as bank statements, where a customer was having difficulty gathering payslips or other evidence directly from the employer. As illustrated by Ms H’s complaint, in some cases, DHS can consult its own records for employment information it may have previously verified.

DHS has always accepted bank statements as reasonable evidence of historical income where other evidence is unavailable. As customers do not have the same information gathering powers as DHS, it is critical for DHS to give some customers additional support and assistance to obtain this evidence when they have made genuine and reasonable attempts and other available information is not sufficient. The accuracy of debts relies on the customer’s ability to obtain and input historical income information into the OCI. DHS should take into account the potential cost to customers to obtain bank statements. We suggest that where a customer cannot obtain the information despite genuine and reasonable attempts, DHS should use its information gathering powers to request the information directly from the employer or the financial institution. We suggest the Department of Social Services should include guidelines about the process for obtaining employment income evidence in the Guide to Social Security Law…..

Poor service delivery was a recurring theme in many of the complaints made to our office about the OCI system. Key problems customers experienced were:

* the compliance helpline number was excluded from letters and hard to find within the OCI system itself, meaning customers called the general customer service lines resulting in longer wait times than the compliance line

* not getting a clear explanation about the debt decision and the reasoning behind it

* being required to go online to resolve their situation when they had already indicated they were having difficulties

* instances where there should have been a more thorough manual intervention by a compliance officer but the customer was still referred back online

* difficulties getting information and assistance from service centre staff, either on the phone or in person, or when they tried to go online to use the system

* staff not having sufficient knowledge about how the OCI system works.


The far-right Turnbull Government's response to the Commonwealth Ombudman's report reeks of a defensive inability to face the consequences of its ongoing ideological class war.

The Guardian, 10 April 2017:

In a statement, Tudge repeatedly noted the parts of the report that defended the automated system and said the government was already making improvements that, in some cases, went further than what was suggested by the ombudsman.

“The unfortunate reality is that while most welfare recipients do the right thing, some deliberately defraud the system while others inadvertently fail to accurately declare their income and consequently receive an overpayment,” he said.

“We want to be fair and reasonable to welfare recipient but also fair to the taxpayer who pays for the welfare payments.”

The shadow human services minister, Linda Burney, said the report raised “serious questions about Alan Tudge’s oversight of his department”.

“While some changes have been made to Tudge’s robo-debt system, the ombudsman is clear they don’t go far enough,” she said. “The minister has no one to blame but himself. According to the ombudsman, all of these issues could have been avoided with proper planning and consultation.”

The shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, said Labor maintained the system should be suspended for a review.