That figure of my debt of $3,154.11 was remarkably precise,
but if there was any kind of detailed computation behind it I have never seen
it. I have even pulled an FOI on my case and I cannot make head or tail of how
that figure was arrived at. They came up with this figure, but they provided no
accounting for it and they provided no explanation, initially, as to how it
arose. They just said, 'Here's your debt; pay it or prove you don't owe it.'
This chapter examines the barriers faced by people who wish to challenge
purported debts that have been raised against them by the Department of Human
Services (department). In particular it notes that the onus is placed on
individuals to demonstrate that they do not owe a purported debt and that in
many cases individuals are not aware of their rights.
This chapter considers:
the process to clarify or review a purported debt;
the policy on handling queries and its impacts;
the challenges posed by reversing the onus of proof;
the impact on community legal centres; and
process improvements made by the department.
Process for clarifying, reviewing or appealing a purported debt
Throughout the inquiry, the committee has received evidence from
individuals, and organisations assisting them, about the difficulties
individuals face in clarifying or challenging purported debts raised against
As explained in earlier chapters, the first letter the department sends
to individuals notifies them that a discrepancy in their reported income may
have been detected and requests that the individual visit the online portal to
update their details.
As noted in Chapter 2, the online portal averages annual income evenly
over 26 fortnights if the ATO data does not include employment periods. If
income is not earned evenly, individuals are expected to reconstruct their
fortnightly income over the relevant period.
The department informed the committee that this clarification resolves
the majority of discrepancies and that no further action is required by these individuals.
The committee received some evidence that being asked to update details
can be confusing where the individual believes that income was correctly
reported in the first instance. Tom told the committee in Melbourne:
[They] were told to just go online and update your data. I
argued with Minister Tudge's office: 'How can I update my client's income when
it was correctly reported and nothing changes?' That is impossible.
Reassessment and review
One of the first hurdles debt-letter recipients face is to know that
they can ask for a reassessment. The department explained to the committee that
reassessments are an iterative process:
...if someone asks us to [conduct a reassessment] and provides
more information—and it is an iterative process where people do provide more
information—then we might send them the outcome and they go, 'Oh, maybe that's
not right,' and they provide us with more information, and then we reassess and
we send them another outcome.
Many individuals are unaware that they can request a reassessment. The
Launceston Community Legal Centre said that in its experience in order to
There is a particular set of words you have to use...If you do
not use the right words, you do not always get the right outcomes. Generally
what you need to ask for is that you have a pause on any debt repayments that
are being taken out from your benefit, and that actually does put a pause on those
repayments whilst under review. You then need to ask for a subject matter
expert to give you a multical assessment.
The Youth Network of Tasmania provided evidence to the committee that
young people were more likely to targeted by the OCI and they were less likely
to be aware of their right to request reassessment or review, saying:
Young people may find it challenging to understand what their
rights and responsibilities are and what processes there are for making a
complaint or dispute, and are therefore more likely to require assistance...
The Welfare Rights Centre told the committee that the individuals that
approached them were often unaware of what actions they need to take if they
received a letter from the department:
...our clients are unsure of the steps that they need to take
if they receive a letter seeking clarification of income. Many have difficulty
obtaining information from past employers, there is frustration with the system
of uploading documents and there has been a lot of distress for some clients,
particularly those receiving debt notices.
Consequently, community legal centres that provided evidence to the
committee advised that they have spent time trying to educate individuals about
Because reassessment is an iterative process, it is possible to request
additional reassessments while the individual has additional information that
may clarify the purported debt. The committee received some evidence from
individuals with lived experience of the process that their purported debt was
revised down each time they sought reassessment.
The process of providing documentation for these assessments can be
compounded by the department's own errors. For example, Phoebe told the
committee that she had to upload documentation on multiple occasions because
the department had provided her with incorrect information.
In Perth, the committee heard from Margaret who has a disability known
as dyscalculia. Margaret's disability meant that Centrelink staff assisted her
to report her income. However, Margaret still incurred a non-OCI debt:
I believed Centrelink because they did the numbers for me. I
went into their office and sat down with them. I took in all my paperwork and
said: 'I work for this company. I earn this amount of money. Can you please get
the numbers right, because I cannot do it myself.' They were kind of happy to
do it but pointed out that they did not provide it as a service.
In Launceston, the committee heard similar evidence in-camera, of a
person who lodged their paperwork with Centrelink, only to be later told that
no application had been registered with the department. When a nominee for this
person was subsequently registered at a Centrelink office, this paperwork was
also lost by the department who later were unable to find the nominee form, and
had also not registered the phone calls from the nominee.
These cases highlight that the department can and does make mistakes and
underscore the importance of proper review mechanisms. The department noted
recently that it 'does not currently capture the portion of overpayments raised
as a result of system or administrative error' and that there is no grace
period in legislation for the recovery of debts.
Once the individual provides all possible material to the department, if
the individual is still dissatisfied with the outcome they may seek a formal
The department confirmed this process, saying:
...reassessment is when people provide us information and say,
'I don't think that that is correct and here's another piece of information'...or
they say, 'I think you've got it wrong, and this is why I think you've got it
wrong,' and so we reassess. When we finally say, 'Have you got any more
information?' and they say, 'No,' and we say, 'Right; this is the assessment,'
and they say, 'Okay; I want it reviewed,' then it goes off to a review officer.
Launceston Community Legal Centre explained to the committee that an
authorised review officer is a senior practitioner at Centrelink responsible
for reviewing decisions.
The department has been trying to publicise to individuals the ability
to request a review and that there is no formal time limit on when an
individual may request a reassessment or review. A senior departmental official
informed the committee that:
We are making it plain that there is no time limit on a
request for a review. People can ask for that any time and we will do that.
Reviews cannot continue indefinitely. If an individual remains
dissatisfied with the department's response after one or more reviews, the
individual is entitled to challenge the decision in the Administrative Appeals
If an individual decides to appeal the purported debt to the
Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the department has to provide certain
The committee has received evidence though that the onus still often falls on
the individual to identify missing information.
At the time of writing, very few matters have progressed through the
Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Community legal centres reported to the
committee that the majority of matters are resolved prior to a hearing with the
department accepting a lower debt amount.
Evidence presented to the inquiry pointed to a reluctance among members
of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to accept debt notices from Centrelink
as 'being evidence of debt.'
Victoria Legal Aid quoted a case they acted in, where the Administrative
Appeals Tribunal member was not satisfied the purported debt had been correctly
calculated by Centrelink:
In this case, no effort has been made by Centrelink to obtain
actual wage records... even though such records would very likely be readily
available if required. Instead it has simply been assumed that the total year
earnings can be apportioned equally to each fortnight across the relevant
financial year. However, that is not consistent with the requirements of the
legislation. The actual pay records are critical to the proper calculation of
the overpayment. Accordingly, Centrelink will need to request and obtain those
records from the employer in order to arrive at a correct debt calculation.
During Senate Estimates, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal advised the
Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee that there was a marked
increase in the number of Centrelink related cases lodged in the current
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal advised that 3 387 Centrelink debt cases
were lodged with the tribunal in the 2015–16 financial year and 4 354
Centrelink debt cases were lodged in the 2016–17 financial year.
The department was quoted in media coverage arguing that the increase in
lodgements could not be attributed to the OCI, saying:
The number of AAT requests for Online Compliance
Interventions compared to the manual process in the previous financial year is
much lower, at 0.1 per cent compared to 0.7 per cent.
One of the problems for both individuals and professionals attempting to
challenge a purported debt—as the quote at the top of this chapter observes—is
that it is not clear how the department calculates debts. Basic Rights
Queensland pointed out that:
A significant problem is that—once they do look at a
debt—Centrelink's debt calculations are not actually freely available to the
public. There is a debt calculator on the online compliance site where
Centrelink customers can enter their figures and get an estimate, but
experience from our colleagues interstate indicate that once a person has
appealed a debt that calculator is no longer accessible. This means it is
really difficult for advocates like us to actually assist a person. It is also
difficult for the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to actually assess whether a
debt is correct, so Centrelink customers and advocates really should have
access to the process by which Centrelink calculates the debts, rather than
just getting lists of figures.
The committee received evidence that in some cases, even a list of
figures is not necessarily provided when the department assesses the debt.
According to Tom:
The notice of debt states: 'More information about the debt
is given below' but it gives no figures.
Jade in Adelaide had a similar experience, saying:
There was no information about the reason for the debt. It
just said they have conducted a review of my income details and have changed
the amount that I was entitled to receive. I had no information about it. I
pretty much applied for the review via email.
Some people have attempted to use Freedom of Information requests to
obtain the calculations the department used to calculate their purported debt.
A lawyer that appeared before the committee in Brisbane explained that in
response to a Freedom of Information request lodged on behalf of a dyslexic
client, the lawyer received:
...a printout of payments made to the client dating back to
2001. But there is a bunch of acronyms. I am not really sure what a lot of them
mean. There is a handwritten [annotation]...—it says what was paid today and what
the debt is at the moment. So that is what we were working on...We had a team of
lawyers and a top-tier law firm look at that, and they came back to us and
said, 'We have absolutely no idea what this means.'
The committee received confidential evidence that a few individuals had
greater success. Two individuals informed the committee that after considerable
effort and persistence they were sent the 'Multical calculations', an internal
spreadsheet that demonstrated how the purported debt was calculated.
On notice, the department explained that Multical is:
...an Entitlement and Debt Calculator tool used by Centrelink
staff. It is a macro enabled Microsoft Excel workbook...
Launceston Community Legal Centre noted that it had not experienced
problems accessing the Multicals for their clients.
The #NotMyDebt campaign called for the department to demonstrate in all
cases how the debt was calculated. Its central recommendation was:
...that the onus of proof on any debt must be assumed by the
government rather than having the alleged debtor disprove any possible debt
As Ian said:
To wrap up, the reverse onus of proof should be on the
department and it should not be on the population.
The committee is concerned that the process to challenge a debt —one
most likely to be used by vulnerable individuals—is difficult to navigate. It
is clear to the committee that many individuals are not aware of their rights
when dealing with the department.
The committee accepts that the department has been attempting to educate
members of the public about their rights, but considers that more needs to be
The committee considers that withholding information about how a purported
debt is calculated is unacceptable. Particularly when the onus to demonstrate
that a debt is not owed is placed on the individual, the failure to clearly
articulate how a purported debt is calculated makes it very difficult for
anyone to assess whether a debt is owed. The committee considers that the department
should be much more transparent with this information.
It is unclear whether OCI debts are responsible for the increase in
Centrelink debt lodgements to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, though it
may become clear when monthly figures are available. However, the committee is
concerned about the increasing number of appeals and whether it reflects a
trend in the broader debt recovery program.
Policy on handling queries
As the department embraces online work systems, frontline Centrelink
employees are asked to encourage all individuals to use the department's online
Requiring clients to self-manage
In January 2017, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published a
departmental internal memo that said 'customers must be encouraged to
self-manage' and 'service delivery staff must not process activities in
relation to the Online Compliance Intervention'.
If the individual did not wish to use the online portal, the individual
could be referred directly to the department's debt specialists using a phone
But as noted in Chapter 3, using online portals or a phone service is not
necessarily appropriate or possible for all recipients.
One consequence of the decision to promote online and phone service
assistance is that it disadvantages persons from culturally and linguistically
diverse (CALD) backgrounds who find it difficult to 'self-manage'. As the
Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA) informed the
It is often the case that CALD persons are affected by the
intersection of multiple vulnerabilities. There may be gaps in their financial
literacy, institutional literacy, digital literacy, English literacy and
combinations of those factors. In some cases it is only through face-to-face
human interaction that CALD persons are able to effectively communicate with
government and other service providers.
Reversal of onus of proof
Under the OCI measure, once a purported debt is raised against an
individual, the individual is expected to provide information to demonstrate
that they do not owe a debt.
A senior departmental officer informed the committee that the onus of
proof has not changed:
The onus of proof was the same in the manual system as in the
recent measure. We still asked people to find the evidence of their income
However, finding evidence of income may be difficult in some cases. The
Queensland Council of Social Service told the committee:
...[Centrelink] shifted all responsibility to the individuals
through the process they have put in place... 100 per cent of the responsibility
is placed back on the individual, with a lack of support and a lack of
correspondence or communication even on a website to provide any level of
The #NotMyDebt campaign is also critical of a model that requires individuals
to source documentation from previous years:
The department has reversed the onus of proof onto
vulnerable, under-resourced people and has provided virtually no guidance, let
alone assistance, for achieving what is required of them. Even for those who
have the money, cultural capital, education and literacy to navigate the system
or pay debts to make them go away, it is time-consuming and often distressing.
We are especially concerned for people with fewer resources.
The effect of placing the onus on the individual is that an individual
also becomes liable for any of the errors that emerge as a result of
For others, obtaining the necessary documentation for previous years,
such as payslips, may not be possible if the business is no longer trading. The
Anti-Poverty Network South Australia argued that:
Many people in our group who are unemployed worked for
companies that have gone out of business; they were made redundant. They would
have no way of being able to track down payslips from five, six or seven years
Other documentation may not be available because it was not recorded or
the data has been lost. For example, recipients often engage with Centrelink by
telephone. Legal Services Commission of South Australia observed that in those
Hopefully, the department has been keeping a record of the
stuff that has been submitted in the past...but at the moment...it is going to be
very difficult to get a consistent approach because there are many different
sources of information, some of which has perished.
Reversing the onus of proof to demonstrate that the purported debt is
not owed can create additional difficulties for individuals involved, beyond
having to substantiate that their income was declared correctly.
The committee received some evidence that many individuals found the
process of navigating the system to be stressful and frightening. The
Anti-Poverty Network SA conveyed their sense that the OCI has made individuals
fearful of making a mistake and incurring a debt:
The sense that we have is that this has added another layer
of fear to what is already an increasingly difficult and unpleasant experience
for people on welfare payments...
The Australian Capital Territory Council of Social Service reported that
they believed that many people feared retribution if they contested a purported
The National Union of Students agreed with that sentiment and suggested
that students may have paid purported debts that they did not believe they owed
as a result:
A massive fear was that if they refuted the debt it would
impact future Centrelink payments—given how hard it is to access Centrelink in
the first place and how long they have to wait for payments et cetera...So I
think a lot of students felt forced to pay it up-front.
The committee received confidential evidence that the process of
challenging the purported debt is so onerous that some individuals are being
deterred from attempting to find work or accepting payments they are entitled
to in exchange for certainty that a debt will not be raised against them.
One individual on a disability support pension explained to the
committee that he found the system of challenging the purported debt destabilised
his mental health to such an extent that he was discouraged from rejoining the
workforce out of fear that he may incur a debt.
The committee received evidence from the Legal Services Commission of
South Australia that a client was informed that she owed the department
approximately $14 000. After the Legal Services Commission of South
Australia intervened, the department reduced the purported debt to about $7 000.
The applicant may have been able to reduce the debt further, but instead
decided to pay it because the applicant was, by that point, 'so exhausted by
the process' that they were willing to pay a purported debt they did not
believe they owe rather than continue to contest the debt.
For some, challenging the debts can be all too much. As Social Security
Rights Victoria submitted:
We have a client now who cannot cope at all. His only
recourse for assistance is a nurse in hospital, who feels sorry for him, who
has contacted us on his behalf.
For many people who receive payments there is an economic cost to
dealing with the department.
Launceston Community Legal Centre explained to the committee that many
vulnerable people spend a large part of their payments on products and services
in order to deal with the department, including internet access and mobile
Some recipients informed the committee that even though they did not
believe that they owed the department money, they paid the debt because they
found challenging the debt to be too frustrating or difficult. More
immediately, the committee received some evidence that people who relied on
advance payments were paying debts they did not believe they owed.
An advance payment is a facility to obtain a part of an income support
The Launceston Community Legal Centre stated the OCI debt has created
problems for some individuals because:
...if you have an alleged recoverable debt with Centrelink, it
automatically stops you from being able to access the advance payment option.
Some individuals rely upon this facility to meet substantial bills. A
solicitor with the Welfare Rights Centre shared a client's experience with the
One of my clients was an age pensioner, which is unusual with
this kind of debt, and she relied on those advances to register her car. She
was not able to do that, because you are not eligible to get an advance if you
have a Centrelink debt. She was fortunate because she had family members who
could help her out. That is a side issue that affects anybody who has a
Centrelink debt. Particularly for people who are distressed and usually rely on
those as part of their budgeting for the year, it is really difficult.
As noted elsewhere in this report, contacting Centrelink to dispute the purported
debt can be time-consuming. For some already under-resourced families, the
imposition on their time has been a significant burden. Children and Young
People with Disability Australia provided an insight into the imposition placed
on families where a member has a disability. She said:
The practicalities of the situation for people with
disability and families of children with disability...mean that they are time
poor... It is not that people mind being responsible and accountable for what
they are doing, but I was told you cannot even make an appointment. I had to
spend two hours in there verifying [the] ID of a boy that has been on the
system for 17 years.
In Canberra, the Community and Public Sector Union informed the
There are alleged debts that people have travelled hours to a
Centrelink office to talk to somebody about, because they could not reach
anybody through their call centre network, only to find after two visits that a
debt had not occurred. The one example that a member told me about was somebody
that had to get on a bus for an hour and 15 minutes to get to a Centrelink
office not once, not twice but three times before the matter was resolved.
Checking records held by the
As noted in Chapter 2, the department has changed the point at which it
reviews the records held by the department.
Cross-checking records held by the department used to be one of the
department's routine functions. The Australian Council of Social Service
...departmental officers do have access to the information
because people have historically reported their incomes, but the auto
data-matching system has generated a particular assumption about income.
Instead of those assumptions about income then being cross-checked by
departmental officers with the data that Centrelink holds on past income
reported, that has been completely cut out, and all the onus is put back out
onto the individual to again come back to prove what income they earned in what
periods of time.
The OCI places a greater emphasis on the individual to maintain and
verify information relating to their case.
Departmental officers now cross-check the information held by the department
at the reassessment stage if it is requested by the individual.
Welfare Rights Centre South Australia Inc. shared its observations that:
What was happening in a number of cases was that for clients
who were trying to obtain information it resulted in a Centrelink officer
interrogating their records for the first time in some detail and then deciding
there was either no debt or the debt was incorrect. The process of asking for
information was what prompted what Centrelink used to do, which was to
interrogate the records.
The Anti-Poverty Network SA called for a degree of human oversight to be
introduced before letters were issued:
...the scheme as it currently exists in its automated form
needs to be scrapped. We need to move back to a system with a high level of the
human checks and balances, and with a high level of manual oversight.
No basis in law
According to lawyers that appeared before the committee, there may be no
basis in law for the department to demand that a recipient demonstrate they do
not owe a purported debt. The President of the Law Society of South Australia informed
Like any party that claims to be owed money and to have a
right of recovery, Centrelink bears the legal onus of proving that the money
claimed is owed. Unfortunately, the process implemented by Centrelink has
included within the process assumptions rather than reliance upon evidence.
That view was supported by a barrister and human rights advocate from
the Australian Lawyers' Alliance:
...the idea of reversed onus, where you need to prove you do
not have a debt, has no basis in law. Centrelink says, 'You owe us that amount
of money,' but the way the law works is that you are entitled to say to
Centrelink, 'Particularise your allegation'—in other words, 'How did you
calculate that amount? How do you say that is the amount? What is the basis
upon which you say an amount is owed? In what section of the act or regs et
cetera is it?' That is the way it should be.
The committee understands that the department is endeavouring to make
greater use of technology and is encouraging more people to manage their
payments online. The committee also understands that people have complex lives
and that engaging with Centrelink should be a clear and manageable experience.
The committee is concerned that the department has placed the onus on
the individual to demonstrate that a purported debt does not exist. The
committee accepts that challenging these purported debts has taken considerable
effort on behalf of those individuals.
The committee notes that no other party is entitled in law to assert
that a debt exists and require the other party to disprove it. The committee
accepts that the individual may know more about their affairs than the
department, but in circumstances where individuals have already declared their
income to Centrelink, it is only fair and reasonable that the department should
attempt to investigate its own records before it requires individuals to
attempt to reconstruct fortnightly earnings from previous years.
Community legal sector
The committee notes evidence that the expanded debt recovery process,
lack of transparency and complexity of the system along with questions about
the legality of the department's process have meant that community legal centres
are experiencing a significant increase in the number of requests for
In South Australia, the Law Society of South Australia informed the committee
that there had been a 'threefold increase of attendances' at community legal
In Victoria, Social Security Rights Victoria reported a 68 per cent
increase in work because of the OCI system.
In other places, a change in the data-management system precluded the provision
of an exact proportion, but community legal centres, such as Basic Rights
Queensland, noted that the increase was significant.
Whilst the increase in the demand for services is significant, the
community legal sector observed that there were likely to be many more
vulnerable people who would have been unable to access legal services because
community legal services did not have the resources to deal with them.
The Legal Services Commission of South Australia explained that many
people do not consider their Centrelink purported debt to be a legal problem:
...when people do receive advice from the department they do
not immediately see that as a legal problem, so they do not necessarily come to
a legal aid agency. They see it more as a departmental problem or a financial
Even if an individual is able to obtain legal support, it is unlikely to
be from a specialist. WEstjustice expressed the view that there are very few
legal specialists in this area:
Despite the number of people who are in receipt of Centrelink
and depend on it for their livelihood, the number of lawyers in Victoria with a
significant knowledge of Centrelink law is probably less than 10. If you
receive one of these letters, your chances of finding someone to see face to
face and to get advice from is somewhere between limited and non-existent...
WEstjustice went on to explain that there is a lack of Centrelink law
specialists in Australia, not just in Victoria:
Around the entire country the number of specialist Centrelink
lawyers is incredibly small...most of the people receiving these letters have
almost no chance of getting specialist advice other than by going through the
phone systems of the state legal aid agencies...
One of the challenges for the state legal aid agencies, and community
legal centres more generally, is that funding is a considerable challenge and
it has placed pressure on their ability to assist the community.
In places where funding to the community legal sector has been restored,
a lawyer from LawRight commented:
...some of that money will be reinstated, but our understanding
is that that has been earmarked for family law and domestic violence services.
It does not necessarily follow that any advocates providing advice in the
social security law space are going to be refunded.
This means that it is difficult for individuals to obtain suitable legal
advice about their OCI purported debts. As LawRight pointed out:
...many of our clients are not able to address these debts by
themselves, and they do need legal assistance. But that is becoming,
increasingly, out of reach.
The committee is concerned about the levels of demand experienced by the
community legal sector. The committee considers that legal assistance should
not be required to navigate Australia's social security system, but recognises
that it is currently necessary for many people.
The committee appreciates the assistance that these centres have been
able to provide to individuals. To continue this work, the committee recognises
that the community legal sector needs to be appropriately resourced.
Process improvements by the department
The committee acknowledges that the department has made some
improvements to the OCI process since the program was first trialled in
At the committee's initial public hearing on 8 March 2017, the
department provided the committee with an overview of the improvements the
department has made to the system, saying:
...we have put refinements in place, including things such as:
registered mail; changes to the portal to make it easier to use, particularly
around using bank statements rather than people's pay slips that they may find
harder to get access to; simpler language; different use of colours on the
portal to make it easier to read; an extension from 21 to 28 days to provide
the information; and, importantly, when a debt has been identified—which is a
pretty long way down the track—that people, if they wish to reassess or review,
can put that debt repayment on pause until that review had been completed.
Each of these improvements will be considered in turn.
By sending letters by registered mail, the department is able to identify
whether the letter is received by the intended recipient. As identified in
Chapter 3, the department's failure to send letters in this way meant that
approximately 6 600 individuals only became aware that they may owe a debt when
they were contacted by a debt collector because they did not receive the
department's previous correspondence. To ensure that the department now has the
correct address, the department now sends two letters by registered mail:
The first letter asks people to clarify and gives them a code
with which to access the refined portal. The second reminder letter is also
sent via registered mail—assuming the first letter goes to that address. If it
comes back and says that the person was not at that address, we will then seek
other means to contact them. Sometimes we can use mobile phone numbers that may
be listed in the record and we can use other sources, such as the electoral
roll or something like that. That is the refinement in making sure the letters
get there. Even if people were registered for myGov, we are still sending them
out registered mail just to make sure they get that.
Another improvement to the system has been made to allow individuals to
provide the department with bank statements to demonstrate their net income. The
department explained to the committee that this was because:
The main social welfare payments are calculated on gross
payment, which would require people to have access to information from
employers. If we use net income, people are able to use bank statements to say
what actually went into their bank accounts in different periods, so that is an
improvement there. We have also automated the process of asking for an
extension in which to provide more information...
As noted above, some data from employers or former employers may be
difficult to obtain meaning that this is an important improvement to the
The department also revised their letters to make them clearer, saying:
We have also looked at some of the letters—letters are the
bane of our life—trying to make them clear and easy to read. We have had
another go at making sure the letters have a call to action so that people
understand what their requirements are.
The letters now clearly contain the department's 1800 phone number. A
senior departmental official explained that:
One of the things that we learnt is that our letters were not
very clear on the 1800 number, and one of the areas where we have made a
significant change is making the 1800 number significantly clearer to people
than it was in the original letters that we sent out, so people can now access
that. The other key change we have made is that people no longer have to use
myGov to access the system online; that is another significant change that we
made in February. If people do not want to register for myGov, they do not have
to because they are now sent an access code and they are able to directly go
into the OCI system.
Changes to the portal were also made to ensure that the department's
1800 phone number for its debt team was made more prominent.
The department has taken steps to ensure that an individual is aware
they could ask for a pause on recovery of the purported debt while it is being
The department has also recalled a number of purported debts it had referred to
external debt collection agencies, including the 6 600 purported debts where
the individual had not been in contact with the department because they did not
receive the initial letter.
However, the committee also received evidence from witnesses who did not
believe that the department's changes went far enough.
For example, ACOSS asserted that:
We do not believe the minor changes that the minister
announced early in January have addressed the fundamental flaws in this
program, so again today we will be submitting to you that the system needs to
be shut down.
Similarly South Australian Council of Social Service noted that:
...there were some changes made to the program in January and
February 2017, but we really think that those were inadequate changes. They did
not address the design and operational flaws that have been identified along
In a supplementary submission to the committee, the department noted
that it also made changes to the MyGov portal in May to make it easier for
recipient's to use.
In some cases the improvements were not explained to people, which meant
that they were not necessarily able to make use of some improvements, such as
the recovery pause.
Individuals may obtain a less beneficial outcome if they are unaware that
particular options exist.
Concluding committee view
The committee considers that the current process of review is opaque. It
is clear that many individuals remain unaware of their rights when dealing with
the department. The committee considers that considerable work could be done to
clearly promote an individual's rights of review and right to request a pause
while the purported debt is reviewed.
The reversal of the onus of proof in respect of these purported debts
has had a substantial impact of the individuals concerned.
The committee understands that the department is attempting to identify
discrepancies and overpayments and that it may need the individual's assistance
in some circumstances. However, the committee considers that the department
should consult its own records, or design a system capable of checking its
records to ascertain what the recipient previously reported to the department.
Where a purported debt is raised against an individual, the committee
considers that the department should be forthcoming with the calculations that
demonstrate how the debt was arrived at.
The committee considers that these factors contributed to the increased
number of requests for assistance received by community legal centres. Funding
for these legal centres remains a substantial issue.
The committee acknowledges that the department has worked to make some
improvements to the overall system. However, the committee considers that more
needs to be done.
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