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Centrelink robo-debt system "Orwellian, bullying": Senate inquiry

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Dealing with Centrelink over welfare debts is like talking to a brick wall or being bullied, those who’ve tried say.

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A Senate inquiry into Centrelink’s welfare payment recovery program will hear on Wednesday from people who have been told they incurred debts.

While the individual cases will be heard in secret, two of those giving evidence have given their opening statements to AAP.

“Despite spending so much time trying to understand the system, I don’t have any trust in the way Centrelink comes up with robo-debts,” Letecia Luty will tell the senators in Melbourne.

She was told in February she owed the government $2300 and asked to produce payslips from 2011.

“They asked me to ‘accept’ the debt. They did not explain what the robo-debt was based on and it felt quite pushy, like I had no choice but to accept the debt,” Luty will say.

“Robo-debt feels like a bullying system that affects people who are the most vulnerable.”

After she asked for a formal review, the amount was reduced to $400, but it wasn’t explained how this figure was reached and no review was done, as far as she could tell.

Licensed rigger Ken O’Shea will tell the committee the inconsistent nature of his jobs means Centrelink’s averaging system doesn’t work for him.

“I’m not doing this because I want Centrelink to wipe my debt, I want them to stop using averaging, which would never work for someone in my employment situation,” he will say.

He was told he owed $7000 and has been trying for two years to get to the bottom of how and why.

“The robo-debt system is truly Orwellian. I have heard politicians say that you just need to call up Centrelink to fix your debt,” he will tell the committee.

“Trying to go about disproving the alleged debt to Centrelink has been like talking to a brick wall.”

The robo-debt scheme matches tax office and Centrelink data to claw back overpaid welfare payments.

People are contacted if Centrelink thinks they might owe more than $1000.

The government has admitted about one-fifth of initial letters included information that was later proved to be wrong.

The department disputes the characterisation of such letters being called debt notices, although the Commonwealth Ombudsman has said he understands how some people receiving them would consider them one.

-AAP

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