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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21562

Mr SCIACCA (9:52 AM) —I have spoken before in this place about the `take no prisoners' approach to debt collection that Centrelink adopted while under the guidance of the former minister Senator Amanda Vanstone. In the brief time available to me this morning I would like to draw the attention of members to a very upsetting encounter that one of my constituents has had with the debt recovery section at Centrelink, in the hope that the new minister will see the effect the current system is having on decent people and will take steps to urgently review the way entitlements are calculated and overpayments are handled.

Robyn Carnes is widely admired in the Wynnum-Manly community for the wonderful contribution she makes as a foster mother, so much so that she received a Centenary Medal earlier this year in recognition of her outstanding efforts with young people. Being a foster parent is a tough job at the best of times, but Robyn—who has significant disabilities which restrict her mobility, as a consequence of thalidomide, and has only one lung and one kidney and suffers from a heart murmur—has for many years devoted herself to assisting disadvantaged children and doing everything she can to give them the best possible start in life.

To ensure she was in a position to provide for the children in her care, Robyn worked for many years in a part-time capacity on reception at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane. During this time she also received a small disability pension. In 1997 Robyn was offered the position on a full-time basis and she immediately notified Centrelink about her new circumstances. Having done this, she was confident that Centrelink would reassess her entitlement in light of her increased earnings. Unfortunately for Robyn, this confidence was misplaced.

Five years later she was contacted by Centrelink and advised that she owed them $9,000. This debt apparently arose because, in a review of entitlements, Centrelink used one of Robyn's pay slips and annualised it over five years. This practice means that Centrelink is often working with figures that are in no way a true reflection of people's earnings, and it puts Centrelink clients like Robyn in a position of considerable disadvantage.

Mr Danby —It is disgraceful.

Mr SCIACCA —It is disgraceful, as my colleague says. Robyn has a small term deposit of $12,000 that was left to her by her late husband. This money represents her only savings and is an important safety net for her if unexpected costs arise because of her health care needs or in order to assist the children in her care. So she was understandably distraught when Centrelink told her that they would be taking $7,000 from her account when the term deposit matured. This threat was made despite the fact that Robyn had been given the time to ask for a review of the debt and had spoken with Centrelink staff about options to repay any moneys owing in monthly instalments.

Thankfully my office was able to intervene. After extensive negotiation during which Centrelink staff were made aware of Robyn's unique situation, the decision to garnishee her bank account was reversed and a more reasonable repayment plan was arranged. But it should never have got to that stage. It is appalling that people like Robyn who have been honest in all their dealings with Centrelink are subjected to such heavy-handed treatment by the debt recovery section. I can only hope that with the arrival of a new minister—a nice person, Senator Patterson—this portfolio will receive the injection of compassion it so sorely needs. (Time expired)