17 August 2019 – Correction – Reporting on Online Compliance

We’d like to clarify some incorrect information about the Department of Human Services’ income review system, following a recent letter published in the Launceston Examiner.

While automation facilitates data-matching, the oversight, review and debt-raising process is undertaken by our staff. The suggestion that the process is fully automated is false as there is human involvement of our staff throughout the process.

Recovering overpayments is a fundamental principle of our welfare system – when someone has a debt, the department is legally obliged to pursue recovery of that debt.

We have a dedicated team available to help people experiencing difficulties or who have concerns about their income review. All correspondence includes a dedicated phone line available for people to call if they need additional support and advice.

If people are concerned, we strongly encourage them to talk with our trained staff. These staff can step people through the process, provide tailored support, and connect people with other support staff such as social workers.

Debt recovery in Townsville

We know the impact of a natural disaster can be absolutely devastating for affected communities and they need time to get back on their feet. That’s why debt recovery in North Queensland will not be recommencing in the foreseeable future.

During natural disaster events such as cyclones, bushfires or floods it is standard practice to temporarily pause debt recovery activities in the affected local area.

When recovery activities resume, staff work sensitively with customers, taking into account their individual circumstances. This includes giving people additional time to provide supporting documents that may not be readily available, and any further support required.

The process

Data matching identifies discrepancies between income reported to Centrelink and what has been reported to the ATO. Letters are then sent to customers asking them to provide information to explain this discrepancy. These are not debt letters – no debt notice is issued until the person has been given ample opportunity to explain and resolve the discrepancy.

In 20 per cent of cases, people are either able to resolve the discrepancies themselves online or work with staff through the review process to resolve them, which means no debt is raised. The 20 per cent is not an error rate – it is the system functioning as it should.

If someone chooses not to engage with the department, we make a decision based on information they have previously provided and information from the Australian Taxation Office.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman has independently and exhaustively reviewed this program and found it is reasonable and appropriate to ask people to explain discrepancies identified from data-matching with other agencies.

The Ombudsman’s 2019 report also acknowledged the significant improvements the department has made to processes, and confirmed that the work the department has done to support vulnerable customers has met their 2017 recommendations.