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We urge action on inquiry findings into 'robo debt'

22 June 2017
Victoria Legal Aid

We are urging the Commonwealth Government to implement the findings of a Senate Committee report into Centrelink’s controversial ‘robo debt’ scheme.

‘This is a devastating account of a flawed system which has harmed far too many people financially and emotionally,’ said Dan Nicholson, Executive Director Civil Justice Access and Equity.

‘We welcome the Committee’s recommendations, and agree that “robo debt” must be halted. We have been calling for this since January, when we first began to see its real human impact. It was ill-conceived, poorly implemented, and in our view rests on very shaky legal foundations.

‘The Committee’s major concern, which we share, is that Centrelink unreasonably shifts the onus onto affected individuals to disprove an alleged debt. Instead, Centrelink should be abiding by its legal obligation to make the right decision based on proper evidence.'

Mr Nicholson said Victoria Legal Aid has run two appeals in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal relating to 'robo debt'. ‘In both cases the Tribunal found that the methodology used to calculate an alleged debt was inconsistent with the requirements of the legislation.

‘As the report shows, there is an emotional toll for people who hear out of the blue that they are apparently liable for a debt. The committee acknowledges that they repeatedly heard dealing with 'robo debt' caused people feelings of anxiety, fear and humiliation.

‘This certainly resonates with what we hear from the hundreds of people who have contacted us for help: that this has been an incredibly stressful period of their lives.

‘We’ve taken twice as many calls about Centrelink issues in the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year – mostly related to 'robo debt'. Yet many more people will probably just pay up, overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to get to the bottom of what, if anything, they actually owe.

‘Centrelink’s communication has been poor, and doesn’t properly explain the basis of alleged debts and people’s rights of review. There’s also been a striking lack of transparency throughout about how the scheme is operating, including the legal basis for it.’

Mr Nicholson said it was disappointing that the government’s response so far has dismissed the overwhelming evidence collected from a broad range of community groups and many individuals who spoke up about their experience.

‘Clearly there is a massive disconnect between the government claims of a system working well, and the real human experience of dealing with Centrelink, and the real human consequences of these letters and debts, many of which are simply wrong.

‘I’m confident the public will view claims that the report is inaccurate or partisan as a transparent attempt to avoid scrutiny of the real flaws in this system.’