…often poorly trained, poorly paid frontline staff are being given the responsibility to decide whether a person has their income cut off or whether there are punitive measures that build towards, ultimately, a cut-off of income, with no opportunity then for the jobseeker to appeal.
This chapter examines the appropriateness of existing complaints and appeals processes under jobactive and considers the need for an employment services ombudsman.
The committee's recommendations are set out throughout the chapter.
Overview of complaints and appeals processes
If participants are in the penalty zone of the Targeted Compliance Framework, their first financial penalty results in a 50 per cent loss of payment. A second penalty results in a 100 per cent loss of payment. A third penalty results in a four week cancellation of income support. Participants can appeal these financial penalties via the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
In contrast, demerit decisions are not decisions made under social security law, so the normal appeals process under the Social Security Act 1991 does not apply. The National Social Security Rights Network summarised the current process for appealing a demerit decision:
If a person disagrees with the recording of a demerit, they first should seek a review from their employment services provider.
If they are unsatisfied with the outcome of that discussion, they can contact the Department of Jobs and Small Business' (DJSB) National Customer Service Line. This line deals with complaints from people engaged with employment service providers.
After a demerit point issue is raised with a DJSB staff member of the National Customer Service Line, DJSB will look at the record and reasons. They may contact the provider to ask that they review the demerit point record.
If the person is still not satisfied with the outcome (i.e. the demerit point remains), they can attempt to escalate the matter within DJSB. The DJSB may step in and override decisions if there are clear issues with the demerit point.
Appropriateness of the complaints and appeals processes
Some submitters argued that the current processes for complaints and appeals are ineffective and can be inaccessible. For example, some participants suggested that feedback given to the Department of Jobs and Small Business can be ignored. This point was contradicted by My Pathway, a jobactive provider, who suggested that the complaints system 'appears to be working sufficiently, and we are not aware of significant adverse job seeker service that is going unresolved'.
However the committee heard that in some cases, participants are left to resolve issues directly with their provider, as illustrated by the following AUWU member testimonial:
I rang [The Department of Employment customer service line] to complain that I was being suspended automatically when I go to work and miss a job service provider appointment. They told me I had to make my complaint to the job service provider itself. They offered no support. They said it was between me and the job service provider.
Submitters reported that some participants may be hesitant to challenge the decisions of their provider, due to the threat of further sanctions if they are perceived as a troublemaker. A participant submitted that it is common practice for providers to tell participants that whatever occurs is 'standard procedure and compulsory, and that if they don't do whatever the JSP has asked then they will be reported to Centrelink and their payments will stop'.
Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand (GSANZ) informed the committee that only a few women in their study took the initiative to file a formal complaint, despite 'many complaints of a range of negative and even abusive behaviours'. The following example is illustrative:
Ingrid…describes interactions with her provider that belittled her intelligence, minimise the value of her master's degree, and subjects her to sexual harassment. She contemplated filing a complaint but did not feel up to the additional stress this would add to her life.
The committee heard that in some cases, participants may have limited recourse when their provider does not act in accordance with their requirements. One submitter reported that they were ignored and discouraged from making a complaint:
I made a complaint by email to the manager of the JSP [Job Services Provider] and received no response. I then contacted the JSP explaining that the deed of service requires that the agency has a complaints process and that I am required to be able to make a complaint. I was advised to make a complaint to Centrelink. When I attended Centrelink to lodge my complaint the Centrelink officer at first refused to take the complaint. I asked to speak to the manager and was told that the officer who refused to take my complaint was the manager…
Eventually I managed to convince the manager to let me speak with DHS [Department of Human Services] over the phone. The DHS officers attempted to convince me to not make a complaint and told me that I was the person that was in the wrong. When I insisted on a complaint the DHS officer told me I’d already told her what happened and that was good enough. I asked to speak to her manager and again had to argue to make an official complaint which I eventually did however since making the complaint…in January 2017 I have received no response in regards to it.
This evidence illustrated a common issue reported by a number of submitters of blame shifting between Centrelink, the jobactive provider, the Department of Human Services and the Department of Jobs and Small Business.
The committee also heard that there is limited information for participants about avenues to challenge decisions. The Edmund Rice Centre WA submitted that there was a lack of transparency with regard to the internal and external complaints process. Similarly, a submitter described the appeals process as 'difficult to understand and enact'. One participant reported that their previous provider 'actively refused to explain any appeals process' and that their current provider ignored their request to explain the process. In this regard, participants indicated a desire for better access to information about making a formal complaint.
Another issue raised by stakeholders was that participants may have to endure having their payments cut off while they appeal a decision, which can mean 'months of surviving while being cut off from payments or support'. This further disincentives the use of the appeals process, as highlighted by one submitter:
Because people are cut off from welfare prior to being able to appeal, the process is made more difficult. Appeal options should be available on caution and have a reasonable timeframe to achieve so recipients can avoid protracted periods of destitution.
One recipient suggested allowing participants access to payments while they appeal a decision, to avoid this situation.
The committee notes concerns from various submitters about the current process for complaints and appeals. The committee considers that the government must examine the appropriateness of existing appeal rights and how to improve the accessibility of the appeals and complaints processes.
The committee considers that it is vital that participants are made aware of their rights and informed of the complaints and appeals processes. Furthermore, there is a need to ensure that participants are not inappropriately discouraged from making a complaint or pursuing an appeal in suitable circumstances.
The committee notes calls for payments to be reinstated while a decision is being reviewed, and considers that a maximum turnaround period for complaints and appeals would be appropriate to reduce financial hardship.
The committee recommends that the government examine the appropriateness of existing appeal rights for participants and how to improve the accessibility of the appeals and complaints processes.
The committee recommends that the government implement a maximum turnaround period for the handling of complaints and appeals from participants.
Employment services ombudsman
There was strong support from organisations for the creation of an employment services ombudsman to assist participants with disputes. For example, the Settlement Council of Australia submitted that:
…given the importance of this [employment] service (both in terms of the quantum of funding provided and the contribution that successful outcomes can make to Australia's economy) a sufficient level of independent oversight and accountability is crucial. An employment services ombudsman is a suitable method of achieving such oversight.
Participants also supported the creation of an ombudsman. One submitter suggested that the lack of an ombudsman or other external body can make it hard for participants to find solutions to their problems:
The lack of an independent or external complaints resolution department makes it hard for jobseekers to find solutions to their problems as they need to rely on their agency to provide accurate information. Agencies often provide misleading information as they stand to benefit from the jobseeker being misinformed.
Another participant submitted that in addition to assisting jobactive participants, an ombudsman would 'take some strain off the Department' and 'remove the possibility of bias' coming from Departmental staff. However some stakeholders considered that an ombudsman, whilst valuable, was merely a 'band-aid' solution.
The committee considers that an employment services ombudsman may assist participants in resolving complaints and bring more accountability into the system.
The committee considers that the effectiveness of employment services should be regularly independently evaluated. For example, by using data on the profiles of local labour markets, unemployed people, the assistance offered to people and feedback from service users. This evaluation could be done by an ombudsman or another body.
The committee recommends that the government consider establishing an employment services ombudsman, to provide an independent review mechanism.
The committee recommends that the effectiveness of employment services be regularly independently evaluated.