Suspend debt recovery scheme to avoid Centrelink 'perfect storm'

The CPSU has demanded the Turnbull Government immediately suspend its controversial Centrelink debt recovery program.

The automated system has sent out more than 170,000 threatening letters to Centrelink customers, in many cases either falsely claiming they owe money or hugely exaggerating the amount.

CPSU Assistant National Secretary Michael Tull said: “This scheme is an absolute nightmare for thousands of Centrelink customers who’ve done absolutely nothing wrong, and the staff who are bearing the brunt of this mess.”

“Our members working in Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support were already desperately overstretched. They’ve been struggling in a system that’s been in crisis for years now. The serious problems with this debt recovery program are piling on even more pressure, and feeding more aggression from understandably frustrated customers.”

“We hold very serious concerns about Centrelink’s ability to cope in coming months. There’s a perfect storm of work coming, with this debt recovery scheme likely to be just part of the problem. Our members are also bracing for a repeat of last year’s major problems with the annual avalanche of students applying for benefits, additional work caused by the Turnbull Government’s harsh cuts to the old age pension and problems with Medicare processing.”

“Thousands of jobs have been cut in the Department of Human Services and that’s why service standards have dropped to unacceptable levels, including 36 million missed calls to DHS just last year alone. This is an agency in desperate need of proper resourcing, otherwise it’s the general public who will continue to suffer.”

“This debt recovery scheme needs to be urgently suspended until the significant problems with it can be identified and fixed, and particularly with an even more heavy caseload coming for staff because of the pension cuts and as people need Centrelink’s support to commence their studies.”

“An important first step in fixing the debt recovery scheme would be consulting with staff as should have been done in the first place. Our members on the ground would have seen many of these problems coming well ahead of time.”

“We have members in Centrelink who’ve been tasked with reviewing cases through this scheme saying in almost every case the poor customer ends up owing nothing, or just a fraction of the debt claimed. In at least one case an initial debt for $9,000 ended up being $90. That’s not a minor discrepancy but a clear sign of a failed system.”

“Centrelink absolutely doesn’t have enough staff to deal with so many cases. Taking staff from other areas to try to deal with this situation will only cause massive problems elsewhere as well. The Turnbull Government needs to recognise the real damage it’s caused to DHS and provide enough staff to provide decent, reliable services.”

“In the short term we’re suggesting one simple change that would immediately ease the pressure at DHS. The Government should convert the agency’s thousands of casual staff to permanent positions so they can be fully utilised in dealing with this deluge of work.”