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Thursday, 16 February 2017
Page: 1386

Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (10:00): Thousands of Centrelink customers have been under attack from this government as a result of failures of the incompetent human services ministry and the disastrous oversight of Centrelink's latest rendition of Centrelink and tax office income data-matching. While this review program is an appropriate function of government welfare support payments, over the past weeks my office has been deluged with complaints from Centrelink recipients who are already struggling in so many ways and who have been receiving threatening letters from the debt collection agency Dun & Bradstreet demanding immediate repayment of purported debts—often large ones going back years—that the clients were not aware of until recently and that they have been advised by Dun & Bradstreet they did not have any opportunity to appeal. 'Bail up! Pay, or we will garnishee whatever you have'—an approach right out of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. As the Red Queen says to her Centrelink clients, 'Sentence first—verdict afterwards', even though it is admitted by all concerned that an astonishing 20 per cent at least of purported claims are errors of data processing, meaning that at least one fifth of the claims are invalid.

Centrelink staff resources are continually being reduced by the government's increasing reliance on digital processing, which ignores human judgement in the assessment of the financial and other complexities of people's lives, all of which go to the calculation of welfare benefits in the first place. Centrelink clients are already suffering in so many ways and are now being accused and convicted of dishonesty, targeted as cheats by this government. It is certainly true that Centrelink clients who are receiving welfare benefits, including pensions, need to accurately update their details on a regular basis. Many are unaware or unable to continuously update their information profile. Rather than assist, the government is now scattering this blast of confronting letters to welfare clients from notorious debt collectors. Australians are being peremptorily forced to jump through hoops to clear purported debts that they had no conception they owed in the first place.

In one case, my office is involved with a Centrelink recipient with severe depression, following the recent death of his mother and close friend, who received a Dun & Bradstreet demand for a $10,000. He has been unable to get clarification on this matter or an appropriate manner of payment. It makes little sense for the government to be so callous. Often these large debt notices are in regard to matters going back years, which the clients are only now hearing of. People should not be burdened by being given this kind of notice. They should get prior notice of debts that have occurred years ago, and now they have the added burden of being considered guilty until proven innocent. For those that have gone through this slow torture, it is necessary for the understaffed resources of the income compliance department at Centrelink to help them. Another of my constituents received a Centrelink request for $4,800. After providing additional information, he had nothing to pay. (Time expired)