After an intense week of complaints from customers, politicians, Legal Aid, the social services lobby and privacy groups, the Commonwealth ombudsman will investigate Centrelink’s debt data-matching programme.
The office of ombudsman Colin Neave on Monday afternoon confirmed it is looking into the matter.
Independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie said that the investigation was “a victory for common sense” as he credited the pressure that he and Senator Nick Xenophon had put on the ombudsman.
“The scale of this problem is beyond doubt, not least because Centrelink itself has admitted knowingly sending out as many as 4,000 incorrect debt notices a week,” he said.
With human services minister Alan Tudge last month threatening jail sentences for those who don’t pay the alleged debt, Wilkie last week claimed that he had been in touch with distressed customers considering suicide. The official Centrelink social media account was then observed referring upset customers to the crisis support service Lifeline.
As well as Wilkie and Xenophon, The Greens, Labor, Legal Aid Victoria, the Australian Privacy Foundation and the Australian Council for Social Services have all called for a halt to the data-matching. Department of human services has defended the system, citing that 80% of letter recipients have paid the debts.