Wednesday, 21 June 2017
Community Affairs References Committee; Report
On behalf of the Chair of the Community Affairs References Committee, I present the report on the better management of the social welfare system initiative, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and the documents presented to the committee.
Ordered that the report be printed.
That the Senate take note of the report.
This is of course the report of the inquiry into what is commonly known as the Centrelink robo-debt debacle. Officially, it is called the Online Compliance Intervention program. This report makes 21 recommendations, which I will come to in a minute. But I want to start with a quote from Ms Kym Goodes, who is the chief executive of the Tasmanian Council of Social Service. She says:
The question that we ask the committee to consider in its deliberations is: where is good government, good decision- making and leadership when a system is failing? Where is the leadership that is bold enough to say: 'We got this wrong. We will pull it back. We will rework it. We will review it. We will talk to the stakeholders, who know best, to try and get it right.' Where is good government in understanding and taking seriously its duty of care to its citizens to protect the most vulnerable and not cause vulnerability or harm to its own citizens?
That is an extremely good question. We have heard many experiences of people who have suffered under this process. Our conclusions and recommendations find that there is a key flaw of this program—it filtered through the whole process and continues to—and that is a fundamental lack of procedural fairness. That is evident in the fact that there was a lack of consultation in this program. They did not consult the stakeholders and the very people who will be affected and were subsequently affected. They did not do a proper testing phase. They did not do a risk assessment of the impact. Why did they not think that sending out hundreds and thousands of incorrect letters would not have an impact on some of the most vulnerable members of our community. They did not even consider that they should not send all those thousands of debts to debt collectors when the letters came back addressed to the wrong address. They did not bother to find out the correct addresses—and 6,600 debts went to the debt collectors because of that. There was a lack of fundamental fairness and procedural fairness in the fact that they automatically charged a 10 per cent recovery fee. The program goes back six years, but on the portal it says that you are to keep your documentation for at least six months. That, when it was pointed out, was very quickly taken off the portal.
The committee's first recommendation is that the Online Compliance Intervention program should be put on hold until all procedural fairness flaws are addressed and the other recommendations of this report are implemented. If these issues are addressed, the OCI should only be continued in its new form after the new one-touch payroll system is implemented in 2018—in other words, those debts are able to be checked through the online payment system, so they have those employment details.
The lack of procedural fairness, of course, continued in the averaging of people's incomes. The government knew full well, when it was sending out these letters, that many of them were in error because they did not have from the ATO the employment details and periods for people. So what do they do? They average it and take out human oversight. This is absolutely critical—human oversight was taken out.
The committee strongly recommends that the rollout of a redesigned system must include a robust risk assessment process which includes consultation with expert stakeholders. We further recommend that all people who have had a debt amount determined through the use of income averaging should have their debt amounts reassessed immediately by a team of departmental officers with specialist knowledge of the OCI program using accurate income data sourced from employers. This reassessment must include the full range of unpaid, partially paid and fully paid debts incurred by the current income payment recipients and those debts outsourced to debt collection agencies.
There were so many flaws in this program that I cannot go through them all in the time I have available. I would like to read out a quote from somebody who gave us evidence. I should say that there were a number of people who were put off giving evidence to us because of the government releasing their personal details. We had quotes from people—for example, from the Victorian Council of Social Service, who said they were going to have a person come but they were not even allowed to mention this person's case because they were so scared that they may get retribution from the government, such as the release of personal details. We make recommendations about that. The government should not be releasing people's personal details. I would like to quote somebody who spoke to us during the inquiry and said:
That figure of my debt of $3,154.11 was remarkably precise, but if there was any kind of detailed computation behind it I have never seen it. I have even pulled an FOI on my case and I cannot make head or tail of how that figure was arrived at. They came up with this figure, but they provided no accounting for it and they provided no explanation, initially, as to how it arose. They just said, 'Here's your debt; pay it or prove you don't owe it.'
Some people only found out about their debt when their income support payment started getting garnished for repayments. Then they found out that they supposedly had a debt. Some people started paying the debt because they rather naively believed that the government must have it right. So they did not question the debts—they just started paying them. We do not know how many of those people out there, but I urge anybody who is caught up with this system to ask for a reassessment. That was another one of the problems: people did not know their rights. They did not know that they could ask for a reassessment and more formal review and go through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
People spoke of their intense emotional distress—how they felt like they were being called frauds and cheats. I cannot tell you how much that distressed people. Again, there was such a lack of procedural fairness that has resulted in these peoples feeling this deep emotional stress and trauma. You are talking about very vulnerable Australians. This made their situations worse. One witness said that it has actually put him off trying to find work because he is so scared that he is going to make another mistake and be put through the trauma of having to prove that he does not owe a debt.
As I said, there are 21 recommendations. Some of those, as I said, relate to the recommendation that this should be put on hold, looking at reassessment of the debts, looking at the fact that the government should be practising best practice. They certainly did not do that through this process.
Before I conclude, I want to thank all the witnesses. I know that going through it again deeply affected many of the witnesses who appeared before us. I want to thank them for their evidence. I want to thank all those people who put in submissions; we received many. And we received many short emails. I want to say to those people: 'We did note them. We understand your distress and we hope this report helps deal with this issue.'
I want to thank our committee secretariat who once again went above and beyond. Honestly, they have pulled some really late nights—and weekend work. They have really done a sterling job. I cannot thank them enough. I would also like to thank my colleagues for the work and effort they have put in, in going to all the hearings. It was deeply moving to hear people's evidence. I think the whole of our committee would agree with that. I commend this report to the Senate and I urge the government to implement the recommendations—21 of them. Please get on with it: tomorrow.
I accept that we are limited for time so I will try and confine my remarks so other senators are able to make a contribution also. Picking up where Senator Siewert left off, I just want to comment on the conduct of the hearings, starting with the submitters and witnesses. I do thank all those Australians, individuals and organisations, that came forward to provide evidence to this committee.
A lot of people—as mentioned by Senator Siewert, the chair of the inquiry, and as I am sure other senators will mention—experienced a degree of confusion and stress over experiences they had. I am not sure if committees have done this previously, but we were able to offer a degree of anonymity to submitters and people who wanted to come to closed sessions of the committee. People were able to speak freely about their problems. So to my colleagues, particularly Senator Siewert and Senator Watt, thank you very much for your work on this—and the secretariat and all the submitters as well.
In terms of the starting point on this issue, I do not think anyone comes to this issue thinking that everything is done perfectly and everything is done right. One has to acknowledge where things go wrong. That is why we had this Senate inquiry. I have been very clear since—as Senator Siewert leaves I again I commend her on her work here. My personal position on this is that, as a representative of the Tasmanian community, I was contacted by many people with issues they experienced. So that was quite insightful. You have to acknowledge the issue. You cannot ignore it. You cannot pretend nothing is wrong. On that point, it is important to note the changes that were made before the inquiry commenced. Changes were implemented by the minister and the Department of Human Services. Additionally, recommendations were made by the Ombudsman and all of the recommendations have been accepted by the department. Implementation is underway, if not completed, on those recommendations. There are also ongoing areas of reform as well.
I want to briefly touch on my dissenting report, which is co-signed by Senator Reynolds, the other coalition senator. It is not a case of saying, 'No, there's nothing wrong and there are no lessons to be learnt here'. It is a case of putting our views on the record around the areas of improvement that are required. They go to three areas: improving data matching and case selection; enhancing communications and interactions with recipients, including simplification of language in letters; and improving debt management processes. All of these things go to the complex nature of our welfare system in this country, and how recipients in trying to interact with this complex system can find it difficult.
Senator Siewert touched on the point that Australians who receive correspondence from the government often think: 'It's from the government; it must be right.' That is something we have to take into account. There are a number of recommendations we make ourselves as coalition senators about areas for improvement with regard to data and analysis of that data; about how to interact with recipients; how to make this a seamless and straightforward process as much as possible; and how to make it easy in terms of an entry point and providing data to assist recipients of any support on the way through the process.
All of those things being there, I would encourage people to read the report but also to read the dissenting report, because it is important, I think, to read as well the dissenting report, which I think is a very measured document. It is not a case of pretending there is nothing wrong and there are no lessons to be learnt; it is a case of applying a degree of composure, having a measured view to the way forward and accepting that, yes, it was not done properly, it was not perfect and there are lessons to be learnt but also acknowledging that there have been changes made.
I accept that we have five minutes left, so I will conclude my remarks there.
With only five minutes left to go, I will not be able to give a particularly detailed speech, but there are a few aspects of this that I would like to touch on, because time is limited. I know Senator Polley was keen to speak. She has waived her time, and I think it is worth pointing out on behalf of her and other Tasmanian senators that this inquiry reveals some particular issues that applied in Tasmania as a state with particular characteristics where this robodebt system impacted particularly deeply.
Participating in this inquiry was an incredibly moving experience, and I think any fair observer would have to say that this whole Centrelink robodebt debacle has been a particularly shameful episode in the life of the Turnbull government and a shameful episode in Australian public policy more generally. Sitting through committee hearings and listening to the personal stories of the many thousands of Australians who were affected by this robodebt debacle was incredibly distressing. It was incredibly distressing to listen to the experience that these people had had. They are good, honest Australian people who have been made to feel ashamed, humiliated, harassed by the department and by debt collectors and, in many cases of not having actually done anything wrong, accused of owing debts to Centrelink which they did not owe—in some cases tens of thousands of dollars more than they actually owed and in many cases not owing a debt whatsoever but put through the wringer by this government in its determination to drive savings from people who actually did not owe a debt.
Every person who was involved in this process should be ashamed of themselves for setting up the process the way that they did and for maniacally pursuing it despite the problems that were shown to exist. To this day we have seen no remorse whatsoever from the Department of Human Services, which oversaw this program, or their minister, Minister Tudge. Throughout this inquiry we repeatedly invited departmental witnesses to concede that there were errors in the system that they were rolling out, but they repeatedly denied that there were errors and came up with all sorts of language to explain themselves. Rather than people getting debt notices, they were getting 'clarification letters'. Rather than errors being made, there were 'clarifications that were required'. The departmental secretary repeatedly came to hearings and laid the blame for the problems with this system with Centrelink recipients for not engaging with the process despite the fact that her own department has ridiculous waiting times for people who try to get assistance from Centrelink. The blame was always laid squarely at the feet of Centrelink recipients.
I turn to the minister. Of course, infamously it was revealed that he had leaked personal information of numerous recipients to media outlets in an effort to combat attention that was being drawn to his failures and the failed system. There was an Australian Federal Police investigation into his behaviour which did clear him, but, whether his behaviour was legal or not legal, there is no question that his behaviour and that of his office in releasing personal information of people to the media was highly unethical.
The whole way through this program, rather than seeing any remorse or apologies from ministers who were involved, again the blame was always laid at Centrelink recipients, some of the most vulnerable people in the community, and it was always justified by the savings that were being generated. I said yesterday in another context that this government does not know the value of human life. It knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and this is another classic example where the bottom line was put above the needs of hardworking, honest Australians who were unfairly accused of owing debts and then pursued relentlessly by the department and by debt collectors.
Rather than this government owning up to mistakes and accepting responsibility, the fact that they have chosen to put in a dissenting report here demonstrates that, to this day, there is no acknowledgement from the government that they have done anything wrong. I do not have time to go through the litany of failures that existed and that were shown up by this inquiry, but I do commend the report to all senators to read. I honestly do hope that government ministers read this report and take on board the recommendations. Most importantly, this system should be halted immediately. There is a plan to expand it which will affect aged pensioners greatly. The government should halt immediately and reconsider.