Department backs debt system

The Department of Human Services has defended Centrelink’s automated debt calculation system and treatment of its workforce.

It follows discontent from the Community and Public Sector Union over the handling of staff during the transition to the technology amid stalled enterprise bargaining negotiations.

The CPSU alleged 100 plus skilled jobs, including 18 in Morwell, were replaced when automated debt raising technology was introduced in July 2016 and moved into other roles.

Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen said regional staff were still providing frontline services.

“Claims that department staffing in regional areas has been impacted by the introduction of the new online compliance system are incorrect,” Mr Jongen said.

“Staff in our regional smart centres continue to play a vital role in managing phone and processing services for Centrelink and Medicare, and have not been relocated as part of the new compliance program as suggested by the CPSU.”

Mr Jongen also backed the functionality of the controversial debt calculation system, which has earned the inauspicious ‘robo-debt’ moniker.

He said it was false to suggest the system was raising debts against people for money they did not owe.

“As it is designed to do, the system identifies where there is a difference between the income recorded by the ATO and the income reported to Centrelink for a particular time period,” Mr Jongen said.

“The department does not immediately raise debts against people when a difference is identified.

“People are instead given the opportunity to review the information and update or confirm the details in the first instance.”

Previously, people who incurred a debt had 28 days from the date of issue to repay it, whether or not it was under review.

Mr Jongen said people now had the option to suspend their debt repayment if they lodged a review.

“The Minister announced that people now have the option to pause debt recovery action if a person has requested a review of their debt, and this review has not yet been finalised,” he said.

He also debunked allegations of heavy-handed threats being levelled at those leaking information to media from within the department.

“Public servants who leak information to the media without regard for their obligations laid out in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 do not qualify as “whistleblowers” under the legislation,” Mr Jongen said.

“The consequences for inappropriately disclosing information, without the protection of this Act, may amount to a criminal offence or a breach of the APS Code of Conduct.”

The department said it has continually improved the service since its introduction, making it easier to access online and adding a more intuitive interface.

Anyone with concerns about their automated debt calculation can phone the department compliance line on 1800 086 400, to ask for help, request a reassessment or to lodge a review of a department decision.