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Senate call for independent review into Centrelink robo-debt

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A Senate committee inquiry into the Federal Government’s discredited automatic Centrelink debt system – or robo-debt – has recommended that the income compliance program be terminated and an independent review into the program be established.

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A Senate committee into Centrelink’s compliance program this week tabled two interim reports.

It follows three extensions to the Senate inquiry, originally due to finish in December 2019,  as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing robo-debt class action.

As part of its interim reports, the Community Affairs References Committee recommended Services Australia immediately terminate its income compliance program and begin an independent review into the policy, design, administration and impact of the robo-debt scheme.

A spokesperson said the Government would “await the final report” to respond to the recommendations.

The Opposition has previously said a royal commission could help provide recommendations on automated data-matching and examine how much the scheme cost taxpayers, how many debts were issued and how many people were harmed.

The Senate on Wednesday evening also voted to support the recommendation that Government Services Minister Stuart Robert explain claims of public interest immunity.

The Government has made two claims of public interest immunity relating to seeking legal advice regarding robo-debt and an Executive Minute cited by the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

The committee found the requested information was vital for the inquiry into the Centrelink Compliance Program concluding it went to the legal foundation of the program and how it was operated.

Committee Chair Senator Rachel Siewart, who tabled the report, said it was in the public interest for the Commonwealth Government to be transparent about the legal advice it received in relation to the Income Compliance Program.

She said the Government needed to stop hiding behind claims of public interest immunity.

Minister Robert said it had been the long-standing practice of successive Australian Governments not to disclose legal advice.

The government said it didn’t want to risk potentially prejudicing the robo-debt class action lawsuit, which is set for trial on September 21 and expected to run for three weeks.

Gordon Legal launched the robo-debt class action in November.

It argued Centrelink’s use of averaging ATO information to reassess a recipient’s entitlements didn’t provide basis to allege a recipient had been overpaid and owed a debt.

The scheme was ruled unlawful last year, with the Federal Court saying Centrelink could not have been satisfied the debt was correct.

The Morrison government announced in May it would repay all debts, estimated to cost about $721 million.

In August, InDaily reported the government had repaid $545 million, or about 80 per cent, of the money owed.

The class action has continued with Gordon Legal arguing it doesn’t believe the Commonwealth satisfactorily dealt with all of the legal issued raised by the income compliance program.

A spokesperson said the Government would respond to the recommendations adopted by the Senate regarding claims of public interest immunity in due course.

Robert is due to attend the Senate on October 6 to provide revised responses relating to the legal advice and claims of public interest immunity.

– With AAP

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