Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Complaints against Centrelink soar, govt blames IT -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

ELIZABETH JACKSON: The number of complaints about Centrelink is continuing to climb.

New figures provided to the ABC reveal that, in the last half of 2015, the Commonwealth Ombudsman recorded a 24 per cent rise in the number of complaints about the organisation.

It follows an even larger increase in the 12 months before that.

The Government admits there are problems but it's pinning its hopes on a new $1 billion dollar IT upgrade.

Critics argue the problem is much larger than that, as Angela Lavoipierre reports.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Meredith Ward works part-time and cares for her two sons, who live at home. The eldest is 20 and has autism. His 18 year old brother has been diagnosed with Asperger's.

She receives a carer payment from Centrelink but her relationship with the agency has been far from straightforward.

Meredith Ward remembers one particularly hard day in January 2014:

MEREDITH WARD: I received a phone call from somebody from Centrelink just saying, "You owe us $25,000."

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Centrelink staff had made a mistake in registering her income four years prior, recording a zero instead of what she declared.

Having discovered the error, Centrelink investigated Ms Ward - and then confronted her.

MEREDITH WARD: It was an attack, basically, on my integrity because at first, with the first phone call I thought, you know, "Am I up for criminal charges? Am I going to be- Am I going to go to jail?" You know, "Is this... you know, what's going to happen?"

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: With the help of a free community legal service, she won a lengthy appeals process to clear the debt.

But the problems haven't stopped there for her, or thousands of others.

AM can reveal there were 3,896 complaints about Centrelink to the Commonwealth Ombudsman in the second half of last year.

That doesn't include the department's internal complaints figures for the same period, which are yet to be released.

In the 12 months to June, the number of complaints to the Ombudsman about Centrelink increased by 26 per cent. New figures reveal that rate has been maintained.

Kate Beaumont is the president of the National Welfare Rights Network. She says they've noticed more people are seeking their help.

KATE BEAUMONT: We're just getting busier and busier. We're also getting lots of complaints about people just not being able to get through to Centrelink.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: The Minister for Human Services, Stuart Robert, is aware that complaints are up:

STUART ROBERT: Customer complaint numbers tell us that there are issues, and we know that. We're trying to deliver a 21st century offering to a well-educated, technically savvy Australian population but we're using 1980s IT.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: The Government will spend $1 billion upgrading that system in the years ahead. Stuart Robert says, until that happens, he expects complaints.

STUART ROBERT: With the clunky back end because of the legacy system, I am going to expect to see an uptake in complaints, unfortunately.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Kate Beaumont from the National Welfare Rights Network agrees there are plenty of complaints about connecting online, but she says the problems are broader than that - and they're getting worse.

KATE BEAUMONT: Well, it used to be that something like a claim for Disability Support Pension: you know, people were often told, "You will hear in about six weeks' time."

We're having clients now who have got claims that have been in for kind of six months.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Meredith Ward is now fighting a new debt that she says Centrelink has mistakenly recorded against her name.

MEREDITH WARD: You just feel helpless and it just drives you crazy, because you think, well, you're trying to do the right thing. I'm not a person who's ripping off the system.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: If the last time is any indication, it could be many more months before there's a resolution.

MEREDITH WARD: You're trying to sit on the phone and wait for an hour and a half or two hours to talk to somebody, I mean, it's just overwhelming. You just think, "I don't have the energy to do that today."

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Meredith Ward ending that report from Angela Lavoipierre.