Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Matters of Public Importance

Pensions and Benefits

5:05 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room, or should I say the 'robot' in the room—because there is no robot issuing debts to welfare recipients. Personally, like many others, I don't appreciate the opposition creating unnecessary anxiety by using highly emotive language around a very personal issue. Debt is not something anyone should be subjected to the trivialisation of.

Let's not forget that the government used to be on a unity ticket with Labor on this point. The member for Maribyrnong and the former opposition leader, Bill Shorten, one of the godparents of income compliance, along with the member for Sydney, said, 'We want to make sure that people aren't receiving welfare to which they're not entitled and no-one gets a leave pass on that.' Let's just reflect on that, shall we? Now Labor's message appears to be, albeit without it going through the shadow cabinet: if you don't engage with the government, you get a leave pass on your debts. The former Leader of the Opposition has also advised Australians who receive a notice from the government to sit on their hands. This sort of reckless politicisation has sown seeds of confusion across the country. The member for Maribyrnong should know better. If one Australian fails to engage with the government and is disadvantaged as a result, that is on his head.

The message this government wants to make very clear is that it is imperative social welfare recipients engage correctly with regard to their circumstances and keep the department up to date so that their welfare entitlements can be correctly calculated. Australians rightly expect welfare recipients to receive the correct amount of support they're entitled to—nothing more, nothing less. Our compliance activity is central to the community having trust in the administration of welfare payments, ensuring the right people get the right money at the right time. We will maintain the government's concerted focus on returning overpayments to taxpayers and balance this with fairness and transparency in our compliance activities.

The point about income compliance I really want to focus on, though, is that there is staff involvement at every stage of the income compliance review process. There are human checks and balances in case selections, so only those most likely to have an overpayment are selected for review. Services Australia have highly trained staff that undertake a review of data that comes in from third parties to check the quality and accuracy of the information before it's used. Staff are responsible for identifying any customers who shouldn't be asked to complete an income review. Staff also have a role in determining whether an individual's reported income discrepancy is likely to result in a debt. Letters sent out to customers reflect decisions of a departmental officer about whether or not they should receive an initiation letter, and the review process doesn't commence without the customer themselves taking some action. This could be the customer receiving their initial notification of a discrepancy through registered mail or myGov, by a customer going online to commence the review process or by a customer phoning the dedicated phone line specified in their letter.

Customers have the choice to go online to complete the review or to undertake the review offline and work with a compliance officer. Staff are available to work with customers throughout the review to help them meet their obligations. This includes staff getting payslips or bank statements for people experiencing difficulty. Even when the online option is chosen, a compliance officer still looks at the outcome before Services Australia finalises the review. Staff are also available to explain the outcome and assist customers who would like a reassessment.

I would also like to bring to the attention of the chamber that Services Australia are not initiating income compliance reviews for people with vulnerability indicators. In the current check and update past income system—better known as CUPI—vulnerability indicators are used as a filter to avoid vulnerable people receiving initiation letters. However, it's important to note that vulnerability indicator status can change and the flag may have been applied to a customer's record after a review was initiated. Departmental staff help people experiencing hardship and complex challenges every day and are trained and supported to deal sensitively with vulnerable people. This can include referrals to social workers. We are also listening to all of our stakeholders involved in the income compliance program to ensure accuracy and access to staff within the department.

Last week the Minister for Government Services announced a further refinement of the income compliance program. This is part of the government's ongoing commitment to continually strengthen and improve the program. The program has already undergone a number of iterations and refinements since its inception, in response to community feedback. These changes will make the program more robust by requiring additional evidence when using income information to identify potential overpayments. This means a debt will no longer be raised where the only information we are relying on is the averaging of ATO income information.

This, however, does not mean that income compliance activities are ceasing. The department will still review payments for discrepancies. In the past the department has asked people to explain discrepancies to them. Under the changes, if someone does not respond to these requests, they will use more information to help them confirm whether they have a debt. For those debts raised to date which the department calculated solely through income averaging, debt recovery will be frozen and the debt will be re-assessed with additional information. Services Australia will contact affected customers as they are identified. This process, though, will take time as individual records are checked, particularly for complex cases. Most of these cases will be ones where people did not fully engage with the department after they were sent the initial discrepancy note. For reviews that are underway, the department will continue to work with customers to complete those reviews.

The federal government spends over $180 billion to support Australia's social safety net—about a third of total annual government expenditure. We are able to support this expenditure through strong economic management. A strong economy enables a strong welfare system. Paying back any form of legal debt is part of our democratic system. This government is ensuring that, in the case of debt through our welfare system— (Time expired)

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