UN expert slams robo-debt ‘fiasco’

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

The federal government’s highly controversial robo-debt scheme has been labelled a “fiasco” that risks seeing the government “stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia” by a United Nations expert on poverty.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston released his report on the “digital welfare state” late last week, with reference to Australia’s robo-debt scheme and a warning against using technology at the expense of human rights.

Robo-debt refers to Centrelink’s Online Compliance INtervention system, which was launched by the Coalition in 2016.

The system uses an algorithm to match data supplied to its by welfare recipients and income information provided by the taxation office. If the system detects a discrepancy in this data, it automatically sends a notice to the welfare recipient asking them to explain the difference. If this isn’t cleared up, a debt notice is then issued.

The robo-debt system has been found to regularly miscalculate debts and create debts when none exist. According to the government there have been about 800,000 income compliance checks since July 2016, with about 20 per cent of these not resulting in a debt being raised.

This process was previously completed mostly manual, but now there is little human oversight involved.

Robo-debt is currently the subject of a senate inquiry and a class action lawsuit.

In his report, Professor Alston labels robo-debt a “fiasco” and uses it as a “prominent example” of how system mistakes have led to major problems for significant numbers of people.

“The Australian government’s online compliance intervention system which used automated data-matching as the basis to send out vast numbers of debt notices with very high error rates,” Professor Alston said in the report.

“While the lack of a legal basis is deeply problematic per se, this gap also means that opportunities for legislative debate and for public inputs into shaping the relevant systems is also lacking. This has major potentially negative implications for transparency, design, legitimacy and the likelihood of acceptance.”

The call-out in the UN report should serve as a reminder that the world is watching the failures of the robo-debt scheme, Electronic Frontiers Australia chair Lyndsey Jackson said.

“It’s a reminder that issues of automation and algorithmic fairness are global issues and the world is watching how we respond to these things. There’ll be countries taking the lead in how they treat citizens based on what it is Australia does,” Ms Jackons told InnovationAus.com.

“We should be concerned that once again we have the UN concerned around our position on human rights, our treatment of citizens and the effect that this automation is having on the social security system in Australia.”

“International experts are seeing that this program is fundamentally flawed and is causing damage, and that it isn’t being executed effectively, and that it is something that should be stopped.”

In its submission to a senate inquiry into robo-debt, Services Australia said the Online Compliance Programme plays an “important role in protecting the integrity of the welfare system”, and that the data is checked by humans before a debt notice is issued.

“It sends a strong message to the community about the need for customers to advise the department of any changes in their circumstances so that we can ensure that we pay the right amount to the right person at the right time,” the Services Australia submission said.

The UN report warns that technology is currently being adopted by governments around the world to save costs and crack down on welfare fraud, but it should instead be used to improve the system for citizens.

“There is little doubt that the future of welfare will be integrally linked to digitisation and the application of AI. But as humankind moves, perhaps inexorably, towards the digital welfare future it needs to alter course significantly and rapidly to avoid stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia,” Professor Alston said.

“Instead of obsessing about fraud, cost savings, sanctions and the market-driven definitions of efficiency, the starting point should be on how existing or even expanded welfare budgets could be transformed through technology to ensure a higher standard of living for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, to devise new ways of caring for those who have been left behind and more effective techniques for addressing the needs of those who are struggling to enter or re-enter the labour market. This would be the real digital welfare state revolution.”

The federal government’s use of technology in the welfare system needs to focus on ending inequality rather than punitive efforts, Human Rights Law Centre lawyer Monique Hurley said.

“The Morrison government is designing a social security system that is focused on punishment and automation, rather than dignity and humanity. Advances in technology have the power to do enormous good, but for that to happen, ending inequality must be central to their design,” Ms Hurley said.

“Robo-debt has seen the Morrison government bully people into paying debts they do not owe, in an attempt to prioritise efficiency over human rights, Robo-debt is wrong and must be canned,’ she said.

“Access to a dignified social safety net is a human right and should not depend on where you live, who you are or the colour of your skin. Digital technologies, while bringing some benefits, can seriously threaten human rights.”

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