Introduction and background
I do not support or condone the abuse of the welfare system
in any way, and strongly feel that anyone who wilfully rorts the system by
providing false information should be caught and punished. However, there may
be some—as we have just heard—on variable incomes or in casual work who
inadvertently have been overpaid. They need to be dealt with differently. The
system of debt recovery needs to be respectful and it needs to be fair and
In December 2016 and early January 2017, a number of people started
raising public concerns about receiving letters saying they owed Centrelink
significant debts. Media articles claimed Centrelink was operating a debt
recovery system with a high error rate. The individuals and whistleblowers who
approached media organisations asserted that erroneous letters were being sent
to Centrelink recipients and former Centrelink recipients requiring the
repayment of purported debts.
The articles maintained that the Department of Human Services (department) had
removed human oversight before the purported debts were raised and an online
portal had to be used to attempt to resolve the issue.
Between November 2016 and March 2017, at least 200 000 people were
affected by the Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program.
During this period, the department sent approximately 20 000 letters per
Because the data matching and issuing of letters was performed by an automated
system, purported debts raised by the OCI came to be known colloquially as
There appears to be broad community support for attempts to recover
money from people that deliberately seek to defraud the social welfare system,
as well as those who have simply inadvertently been overpaid. However, the way
the department attempted to implement the policy created issues for recipients,
frontline staff and the department.
A compelling reason for holding this inquiry was the growing public
evidence of the disruption and impact to individual's lives, as well as
statements from the government that the program would be expanded to assess
other forms of assets and income beyond pay-as-you-go tax records, and that
this expansion was likely to increasingly impact people on aged and disability
This report is structured to follow the process of raising and resolving
an OCI purported debt to understand the challenges faced by debt-letter
recipients in resolving the issues.
What is the OCI?
The government has stated that the OCI is an attempt to make the social
welfare system more sustainable and repair the Budget by using an automated
system of data matching to recover purported overpayments from Centrelink and
former Centrelink recipients.
It also fulfils a Coalition election commitment called Better Management of
the Social Welfare System.
Data-matching and debt collection for the purposes of recovering income
support over-payments is not a new process for the department. The Australian
Taxation Office (ATO) has been providing income information to the department
for the purpose of checking employment income for approximately 20 years.
While the actual data matching remains largely the same, what is different in
the OCI process is how that income information from the ATO is then used by the
department to identify purported overpayments of income support.
What has changed in the OCI program, is that the process of checking the
ATO lump sum income records against the department's fortnightly income
records, a time-consuming process previously undertaken by departmental
personnel, has been outsourced to the individual income payment support
Overview of process
The OCI initially matched income tax data declared to the Australian
Taxation Office (ATO) for the 2010–11 to 2012–13 financial years with records
held by Centrelink.
Where there was a discrepancy between the income declared to the ATO and
Centrelink's records, a letter was automatically generated that asked
recipients to use an online portal to update their details.
The algorithm used by the online portal estimated that the income was
earned evenly across the financial year. Recipients were asked whether those
details were correct.
In some cases, updating these details resolved the discrepancy between
the two sets of data. Where the discrepancy was still not resolved, recipients
were advised that an overpayment had occurred and a purported debt had been
raised against them. As discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3, a wide range
of problems were experienced by people trying to use the online portal to
resolve their purported income discrepancy.
Attempts to communicate with Centrelink to discuss the original letter
or the subsequent purported debt would initially be met with a direction to go
to the online portal or phone service. This was not appropriate for some
recipients, as will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3.
When recipients were able to discuss their purported debt with a
Centrelink debt specialist or obtain a review, their purported debts were often
considerably reduced. Evidence received by the committee indicated that
reductions from thousands of dollars to a small sum or zero were common. For
example, Michael from Brisbane had his $3 000 debt reduced to $50 and age
pensioner Ian had a $7 000 debt reduced to nothing.
Similar stories about people's experiences with Centrelink were shared through
traditional and social media and on a website called '#NotMyDebt'.
As it became public knowledge that Centrelink debts were routinely being
miscalculated, public confidence in the social welfare system was severely
The committee also received some evidence from individuals who had non-OCI
debts, but remained adamant that their debt had been miscalculated.
The government forecast in the 2015–16 Budget that it would save $1.7 billion
over five years by identifying overpayments using income data for the 2010–11
to 2012–13 financial years.
The government subsequently expanded the scheme to include
non-employment income and a greater span of years.
The 2016–17 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) forecast that
the government would achieve $3.7 billion worth of savings (or
$2.1 billion in underlying cash terms) over four years from 2016–17. 
At the committee's hearing on 8 March 2017, representatives of
the department informed the committee that in the first six months of the
2016–17 financial year, the department had sought repayment of $300 million
worth of purported debts and actually recovered $24 million. Given such a small amount has been recovered to
date, it is questionable whether the government will achieve its savings
Part of the mismatch between the expected revenue and the amounts
actually recovered is, in part, due to repayment plans. Ms Kathryn Campbell,
Secretary of the department, informed the committee that people can enter into
repayment plans for as little as five dollars per week, meaning that it will
take them a long time to repay the debt.
The repayment amounts start from a low level because many vulnerable people
also have other debts or payments that they are also attempting to manage.
On the other hand, as will be explained further in Chapter 4, some of
the money recovered by the measure was paid by people who did not believe they
owed a debt, but paid it because some found it too difficult or too stressful
to challenge the purported debt raised against them, while others simply
started paying the purported debt because they thought the government wouldn't
make a mistake and therefore didn't challenge the debt notice.
Expansion of program
The 2016-17 MYEFO also included a measure titled 'Better Management of
the Social Welfare System—assets and investments', intended to expand the OCI
program as of 1 July 2017.
Currently, the OCI program only assesses earned income i.e. wages, data
provided by the employer to the ATO (the pay as you go income tax file), to
review whether an individual has correctly reported their income to the
department and was therefore provided with the correct fortnightly income
support payment amount. As of 1 July 2017, non-employment ATO data streams will
also be assessed, such as share dividends or bank interest, and will therefore
impact support payment types which typically do not earn an income, such as
aged and disability pensions.
Throughout this inquiry, the committee heard many personal accounts of the
stress and distress the automated debt recovery system has caused recipients.
Some of these are included in this report. One aspect that caused distress was
the risk of a financial set back at a time many could not afford it. As the
Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) explained:
The full scale of this...hit just seven weeks out from
Christmas. We know that in the community this is overwhelmingly a time when
financial pressure is very real for households, and most particularly for
people who have interaction with the social security system—many of whom are on
low incomes or in otherwise vulnerable circumstances.
For others, the impact was emotional, as Basic Rights Queensland Inc.
There has been frustration at having to argue their case by
talking to the computer and over the difficulty in trying to discuss this with
an actual person. There has been frustration caused by the hours and hours
spent on the phone trying to offload their correct information, time spent
writing to Centrelink and time spent checking their records against
Centrelink's. Fear is a significant consequence. They have been very afraid of
the whole thing. They were concerned about the impact on their credit rating if
debt collectors became involved...Anxiety is a consequence. They were very
anxious about the risk of defaulting on their mortgage repayments and losing
This view was echoed by LawRight:
In our submissions we have expanded on the impact that this
Centrelink robo-debt scheme has had on our clients, particularly emotionally.
These are people who really are at their wits end in life and they are going
through a lot. To get a letter from Centrelink saying, all of a sudden, they
have this debt they will have to pay back, can be incredibly distressing for
our clients, and it can compound the vulnerabilities that they are already
experiencing in life.
Witnesses told the inquiry they were not advocating that incorrectly
claimed payments should not be pursued, but that greater consideration should
be afforded to the people from whom the purported debts are being recovered. As
a representative of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) said:
...fiscal responsibility is a legitimate goal for the
government. Nevertheless, there are many ways to achieve this...Our members have
observed the distress and financial hardship that the automated debt recovery
scheme has caused for vulnerable people. The government chose a process which
places [the] onus of proof on the most vulnerable welfare recipients, thereby
reversing the presumption of innocence. The AASW objects strongly to the lack
of procedural fairness that this decision represents. It denies natural justice
to vulnerable people.
The committee received evidence that the groups attempting to assist individuals
do not necessarily oppose the use of automation, but they highlight that
greater checks and balances are required in debt recovery to restore care and
respect. ACOSS argued that:
We believe that data matching, if done well, can absolutely
have the potential to mitigate the risks of a debt being incurred by a social
security recipient and to avoid a large debt arising without the person being
aware that that is in fact what is occurring. However, it is absolutely
essential that all the right checks and balances are in place, recognising the
significant and, in some cases, unique powers that the Commonwealth government
has to raise a debt and to pursue debt recovery processes. It must also
recognise that human oversight is fundamentally embedded within the design of
any use of data matching and that the onus of proof that a debt is indeed owed
must rest with the Department of Human Services and the Commonwealth
Mr Mark Henley, Chief Executive Officer of the Queensland Council of
Social Service, summed up a view that was heard throughout this inquiry from
both individuals and organisations:
QCOSS supports the recovery of incorrect income support
payments. These are public funds and there must be a level of accountability.
The public expects that, but it also expects that the government will treat all
people with an appropriate level of respect and in a dignified manner. I would
argue that the Centrelink debt recovery process has fallen well short of that
The impact on individuals is a key focus of this inquiry, and each
chapter includes evidence of how all aspects of the OCI program have had a
profoundly negative impact on the lives of thousands of Australians.
Following this introductory chapter, this report consists of five
Chapter 2 examines the debt calculation process: from the initial
data matching, the process of seeking clarification and the process of raising
Chapter 3 examines the language used in letters issued by Centrelink
and some of the challenges faced by recipients in communicating with Centrelink,
both by phone or via the online portal;
Chapter 4 examines the process of challenging purported debts,
the onus that is placed on individuals and the possible avenues to appeal a
Chapter 5 considers the purported debt recovery process, and
the final chapter contains the committee's conclusions and
Conduct of the inquiry
On 8 February 2017 the Senate referred the design, scope, cost-benefit
analysis, contracts awarded and implementation of the Better Management of
Social Welfare System initiative to the Senate Community Affairs References
Committee (the committee) for inquiry and report by 10 May 2017 with the
following terms of reference:
- the impact of Government automated debt collection processes upon the
aged, families with young children, students, people with disability and
jobseekers and any others affected by the process;
the administration and management of customers' records by Centrelink, including
provision of information by Centrelink to customers receiving multiple
the capacity of the Department of Human Services and Centrelink
services, including online, IT, telephone services and service centres to cope
with levels of demand related to the implementation of the program;
the adequacy of Centrelink complaint and review processes, including
advice or direction given to Centrelink staff regarding the management of
customer queries or complaints;
data-matching between Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office and
the selection of data, including reliance upon Pay As You Go income tax data;
the process of awarding any contracts related to the debt collection
the error rates in issuing of debt notices, when these started being
identified and steps taken to remedy errors;
the Government's response to concerns raised by affected individuals,
Centrelink and departmental staff, community groups and parliamentarians;
Centrelink's Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) and its compliance
with debt collection guidelines and Australian privacy and consumer laws;
- he adequacy of departmental management of the OCI, including:
the adequacy of staff numbers to manage the workload associated with the
OCI, including customer complaints,
what impact the roll-out of the OCI has had on other areas of work and
whether resources have been diverted from other areas,
training and development provided to staff who are working on this
program or in related areas (for example, telephony and complaints),
how the Department of Human Services and Centrelink are tracking the
impact of the OCI rollout on staff, including stress and incidents of customer
any advice and related information available to the Department of Human
Services in relation to potential risks associated with the OCI and what action
was taken as a result, including feedback arising from system testing and
decisions taken in relation to IT systems and service design that may
have contributed to problems experienced by Centrelink clients; and
any other related matters.
On 23 March 2017, the Senate agreed to extend the committee's time to report
to 21 June 2017.
Handling of submissions
The inquiry was advertised on the committee's website and the committee
wrote to stakeholders inviting them to make submissions.
The committee invited submissions to be lodged by 22 March 2017. After
the Senate agreed to extend the committee's reporting date, the committee
re-opened its call for submissions until 19 April 2017.
The committee received 156 submissions and more than 1 400 emails from
individuals. A list of submissions provided to the inquiry is available on the
committee's website and in Appendix 1.
The committee also issued media releases to promote public awareness
about ways individuals could engage with the inquiry. Media releases were
published on the committee's website and were tweeted using the @AuSenate
The committee held nine public hearings at locations around the country:
8 March 2017 — Canberra;
10 April 2017 — Adelaide;
11 April 2017 — Melbourne;
19 April 2017 — Sydney;
21 April 2017 — Perth;
26 April 2017 — Hobart;
27 April 2017 — Launceston;
16 May 2017 — Brisbane; and
18 May 2017 — Canberra.
At each public hearing (with the exception of the committee's initial
hearing on 8 March in Canberra) opportunities were provided to members of
the public to make a short statement to the committee, either publicly or in private.
To protect the identity of debt letter recipients, the committee resolved that
only first names would be used to identify members of the public.
A list of witnesses who provided evidence at public hearings is
available at Appendix 2.
Notes on references
In this report, some references to Committee Hansard are to proof
transcripts. Page numbers may vary between proof and official transcripts.
Commonwealth Ombudsman investigation
Concurrent to this inquiry, the Commonwealth Ombudsman conducted an
investigation into the operation of the OCI system of automated debt recovery.
The Ombudsman initiated the own-motion investigation in January 2017 in
response to an increase in the number of complaints made to that office from
people who had incurred debts under the OCI system.
The report of the investigation was released on 10 April 2017 and made eight recommendations
to the department to improve the operation of the OCI system. These
recommendations are summarised below. It is important to note that the Ombudsman's
investigation was limited to purported debts raised under the OCI, and
specifically did not comment on the policy rationale behind the OCI system, the
department's broader debt raising and recovery program or the use of external
debt collection agencies.
In summary, the Ombudsman recommended that the department:
Review past debts that were charged an automatic 10 per cent debt
Improve the language of the initial letter, including better
contact details, information on income averaging and its impact, and advice on
seeking an extension of time to respond.
Expressly inform individuals if they do not clarify income data,
ATO annualised data will be averaged and this may result in a debt.
Assist individuals to gather income data where they are genuinely
unable to do so themselves.
Improve communication by better promotion of the helpline phone
number, how-to guides on how to obtain income evidence, ensuring adequately
trained and available specialist department staff to assist individuals, and
review complaints to improve the OCI system from the customer's perspective.
Expand the list of customers who received staff assisted
intervention beyond those with 'vulnerability indicators'.
Expand the assistance provided to the above individuals, such as
outbound calls to individuals who do not respond to letters, and consultation
with relevant stakeholder groups.
Undertake an evaluation of the current form of the OCI, and give
consideration to risk mitigation for debt over-recovery before the OCI is
expanded and that further rollout should be done incrementally.
The department advised that it had accepted all eight recommendations of
the Ombudsman's report. As at June 2017, approximately half of the recommendations
had been implemented and implementation of the remainder had commenced and was expected
to be completed by August 2017.
Key responses to recommendations
During the course of hearings for this inquiry, the committee asked
expert organisations for their views on the Ombudsman's report and its
Organisations were generally supportive of the Ombudsman's report but a
number noted that the scope of the investigation limited the report to
implementation matters and did not go far enough to address fundamental flaws
with the OCI system.
The National Social Security Rights Network commented that even
if all of the Ombudsman's recommendations are implemented, the OCI system will
remain fundamentally flawed and should be abandoned.
#NotMyDebt submitted a supplementary submission focused solely on the
Ombudsman's report, and critiqued the investigation as being 'mainly centred around the technical design itself
and the interface of the system.' #NotMyDebt raised particular concerns that
issues of procedural fairness were only lightly touched upon and stated the 'investigation
was devoid of any formal recommendations regarding time limitations and natural
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