Denham Sadler
May 22, 2017

Robo-debt gets an expanded brief

Data Matching

Robo-debt gets an expanded brief

Linda Burney: The expansion of robo-debt to knock on pensioners doors is a mistake

The government is ploughing ahead with plans to expand the controversial robo-debt program to save nearly $1 billion in a move that the Opposition said will unfairly target pensioners.

The Department of Human Services confirmed during a Senate inquiry late last week that the data-matching program would be expanded to include assets and investments, a move that it said will recoup $980 million over the next three years.

From July this year, Centrelink’s automated debt system will cross-check rental income, interest on term deposits, dividends and other assets and investments with information provided by welfare recipients.

The robo-debt program, which has been in use since September last year, cross-checks data with the ATO and automatically sends out ‘initial clarification letters’ – often seen as debt letters – when a discrepancy is found. More than 200,000 letters have been sent, with around a fifth of these being for a debt that does not exist.

Shadow Minister for Human Services Linda Burney said the government now has “pensioners in their sights” with the robo-debt program.

“The Turnbull government plans to rip $1 billion out of the pockets of pensioners using systems like their broken robo-debt program – that is rightly frightening to thousands of pensioners across the country,” Ms Burney told InnovationAus.com.

The move to continue with the planned expansion comes despite a number of inquiries and controversies surrounding the scheme. The Commonwealth Ombudsman has already delivered a scathing report, a Senate inquiry into the program has just wrapped up, and the Privacy Commission has launched its own investigation into data-matching.

Ms Burney said the program should be put on hold pending the outcome of these inquiries.

“The Ombudsman ordered that robo-debt be reviewed. [Human Services Minister] Alan Tudge is talking about expanding it before that review is even completed – that makes no sense,” she said.

“This was a terribly designed program with no proper oversight. It beggars belief that the Turnbull government would expand it before making changes to ensure that it is accurate and fair.”

“The system is not ‘working well’. After months of public outcry, a Senate inquiry and the Ombudsman’s report, that much is clear at least. Fix the system before expanding it. That is the very clear message from the public.”

But Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge has hit back at the Opposition, saying the expansion is a policy they themselves once supported.

“We are not targeting any particular group - we are simply doing checks to ensure that people did not receive overpayments. This work is not new - assets and investment income reviews have been undertaken by my department for many years,” Mr Tudge told InnovationAus.com.

“The same data is being looked at and the same methodology is being used to identify any discrepancies - as has been done for many years, including during the Labor years in government," he said.

"The hypocrisy from Labor is astounding. The same approach they once supported, and undertook themselves when in government, they are now suggesting should be stopped.”

The robo-debt expansion was first announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook late last year, with plans to recoup $300 million in the first year from about 80,000 welfare recipients.

In contrast to the original system, the expansion will see a return to human oversight in some regards. While the initial program sent out “initial clarification letters” automatically, the new data-matching will be manually checked before a letter is sent out.

The cross-checking will also use tax returns completed by the individual, rather than the employer, avoiding some of the issues encountered with the ATO data-matching.

“Importantly, that is information the person has provided to the tax office and has signed off on,” DHS secretary Kathryn Campbell told the Senate inquiry.

But Senate committee member and Labor Senator Murray Watt wasn’t convinced that this would be enough to avoid the issues seen across the program’s life.

“No-one has been able to convince this inquiry that this system has been running so smoothly that we aren't going to see a whole bunch of new problems emerge on July 1 with this expansion, with a particularly vulnerable group of Australians being older,” Mr Watt said.

“There are still very deep flaws and very grave doubts about the validity of the system and the government should put it on hold until it’s sorted.”

The new data-matching scheme will be subject to the government’s new privacy code when it is introduced next year.

Following a push by Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, the government is now working to develop a privacy code for its agencies and departments to assist them in complying with the Australian Privacy Principles.

Under the code Centrelink will have to complete a risk-assessment for any data-matching projects, and this would then be made available publicly.

“I believe that if this is not done, there is a risk that the community may lose trust in the ability of government to deliver on key projects which involve the use of personal information,” Mr Pilgram said.

The Office will also be launching an investigation into the data-matching process employed by Centrelink and the privacy issues surrounding this.

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