Ombudsman asked to investigate Centrelink

Federal Minister for Social Services Christian Porter at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

In hot water over ‘debt’ repayment policy: Federal Minister for Social Services Christian Porter. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas


The Commonwealth Ombudsman has been asked to investigate faults with Centrelink’s new automated data matching system that has resulted in welfare receipients being wrongly hounded to pay debts.

Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has asked the ombudsman to step in after receiving more than 100 complaints to his electoral office about problems with the debt recovery process.

‘The government has terrified countless people, ruined the Christmases of many and even driven some people to contemplate taking their own lives,’ Mr Wilkie said in a statement.

The federal government is looking to claw back $4 billion in overpayments,

Social Services Minister Christian Porter insists the system is working ‘incredibly well’ and the complaint rate was low – only 276 complaints out of 169,000 letters.

But Mr Wilkie insists the minister has his head in the sand.

‘You don’t have to be a genius to tell that taking someone’s yearly income and dividing by 26 is not always going to produce accurate results if only because people’s circumstances change,’ he said.

Labor’s spokeswoman on human services Linda Burney called for the system to be suspended immediately until an algorithm is fixed.

‘The way in which the debt is being calculated is absolutely wrong,’ she told Nine Network.

‘Get it right before threatening people – not that hard,’ Ms Burney tweeted.

She said no MPs who checked the emails to their electorate office could possibly say the system was working.

‘Polite’ letters

But the social services minister has defended Centrelink’s ‘polite’ debt letters generated by a new automated system amid criticism some welfare recipients have been hounded over false debts.

Christian Porter confirmed so far this financial year 169,000 review letters have been sent out, indicating there might be discrepancies after data from different agencies is matched up.

‘The complaint rate is running at 0.16 per cent… only 276 complaints out of 169,000 letters and that process has raised $300 million worth of money back to the taxpayer,’ he told ABC Radio on Tuesday.

The federal government is looking to claw back $4 billion in overpayments.

Mr Porter characterised the letters as polite.

He declined to provide the number of people who are challenging the debt letters.

Mr Porter said the letter asks people to provide more information which they can do online.

He dismissed claims there were problems with the Centrelink website.

‘If anyone is having difficulties they can seek an extension of time if they wish,’ he said.

Mr Porter said the high volume system was ‘working incredibly well’.

Welfare recipients are tweeting criticism of the system under the hashtag #notmydebt.


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