Government Continues To Defend Centrelink's Broken Data Matching System

Image: AAP/Julian Smith

In the normal course of doing business, you'd think that incorrectly issuing bills to the tune of tens of thousands would normally be a cause for concern. That's been the case for at least one single mother this past week, after she received a $24,000 debt notice from Centrelink's automated data matching system (and an order to start paying it back immediately).

But despite increasing concerns about the accuracy and fairness of the process, the federal Department of Human Services is insisting all is well.

For those unfamiliar with Centrelink's new system, it works like this. Rolled out in July, the system compares the information of welfare recipients stored by Centrelink with that stored by the Australian Taxation Office. If there is a discrepancy - like, say, the system detecting that someone is reporting more income to one agency than the other - the automated system issues a notice and a user is given three weeks to prove that they are entitled to their Centrelink benefits.

The principle makes sense - if someone is cheating the system, comparing the information is a simple way to sort it out. But there's a touch of basic humanity lacking at it all, which is causing real distress.

It starts with the initial notice. Whenever Centrelink has flagged someone for discrepancies, it sends a letter by snail mail, an SMS and a notice to their MyGov account. But many users, as The Guardian reports, don't receive the notice due to not having a MyGov account, having moved address, or unable to lodge a dispute online because - surprise! - of bugs in the Centrelink site.

If Centrelink doesn't receive a response within three weeks, it assumes the debt notice is correct - and immediately demands that users begin paying the debt back, even if the amount is later disputed. And gathering evidence of old pay slips can be difficult, because the automated system can issue notices for discrepancies up to six years old. That limit might also be extended from January 1, after the omnibus savings bill that was passed earlier this year abolished the six-year term on welfare debt.

Media agencies, like the ABC and The Guardian, have continued to receive reports about users being unfairly targeted. A common theme that keeps cropping up is whenever a welfare recipient reports as having worked for a company via its trading name, while records with the ATO show another (usually the registered business name). The automated system spots the discrepancy, but isn't able to pull from a database of information matching trading names with business names.

The outcome? Centrelink's automated system thinks people are working more jobs than they actually are, does some quick fortnightly sums, and sends a bill to the user demanding that they pay the money back.

An example reason given by Centrelink to one user. Image: Reddit (u/iamtezr)

This is exactly how a single mother got hit with a debt notice for $24,215 a fortnight before Christmas. The Guardian reported she was disputing the matter, but the department had requested she pay back $60 a week in the meantime. Another told the ABC they stopped receiving benefits three years ago, but because two of the companies she worked part-time for had different trading names to what was listed with the ATO, Centrelink's system assumed she was earning the income of four jobs.

Around 20,000 notices are being sent out a week since the system went online, up from 20,000 a year. Federal Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has previously said he expects the system to send more than 1.7 million compliance notices over the next 3 years, although at the current rate it will send 3.12 million notices over the same period.

But according to Hank Jongen, general manager of the Department of Human Services, the system is functioning just fine. "When data inconsistencies are detected, the system generates a letter ... advising people of the discrepancy and asking them to either confirm or update their details online using myGov ... if, for example, an employer has incorrectly reported the time period for which income was earned, people are able to correct this information themselves using the online tool," he told The Guardian.

According to Jongen, 72% of users who received a compliance notice since September were able to resolve the discrepancy online, with only 2% required to provide supporting evidence. That means 26% of users who received notices had to chase the matter up through Centrelink's human processes. And at the system's current rate of 20,000 notices a week (presuming from September 1 to today), Jongen's own figure means nearly several thousand Australians have had the burden of proof placed upon them.

That's not the only quirk with the issue, either. The ABC noted that Centrelink averages payments into fortnights, even though the ATO only deals with annual payments. That's a huge problem for students or seasonal workers who only earn an income in one part of the year, and collect benefits while they are unemployed or studying. And should Centrelink chase someone up for pay slips going back several years, it's a nightmare if your place of employment has changed bookkeeping systems, accountants, or gone under entirely.

Unsurprisingly, there are calls to suspend or scrap the system entirely. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie called on the government more than once to resolve the issues before Christmas. He's also referred the matter to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, but any action there won't happen until the new year.

Needless to say, the system is broken. Centrelink doesn't seem to think so, of course, but then it's the agency recouping the money.


Comments

    They need to send an incorrect debt notice to someone who is in a position to actually take action on it. Sending a 24k debt notice to a single mum before christmas is bad PR, sure, but Centrelink doesn't need any PR. What needs to happen is they send it to a powerful lawyer or political figure, someone who can call them on their bullshit and take them to court over it.

    Hopefully we'll see some change here, where the burden of proof is actually on Centrelink, instead of their victims. It's gotten to a stage now where I feel sorry for dole bludgers!

      The whole system is bullshit, from genuine people who need to be on disability but their "doctors" who say they are fit for work to genuine people who get punished for their fuckups.

      The disability one nearly fucked my family over, going back a decade ago my dad had a massive stroke at work, centrelinks "doctors" said they assessed him as fit for work even though he was partially paralised and still in a rehab ward at hospital.

        Yeah they are jerk-bags.

        Centrelink are forcing me to work 15-22h/week (which is wrecking me) even though my doctor's have said that I should be on DSP and that I should NOT be working. My quality of life is around 2/10 at the moment and it's only going to get worse - but Centrelink don't care, unless it costs them money to pay for 'another dead-weight on our economy'.

        I can barely afford to live, pay for fuel, vehicle maintenance, rego, etc. so I can get to work, let alone afford to go see specialists/try alternative options, etc. to actually try get better.

        Oh and that is after I've moved home with my parents coz I couldn't afford to live on my own. Also, I wasn't coping on my own... so now mum is looking after me. :|

        Last edited 29/12/16 4:07 pm

    My brother has been caught out over it, he got a notice on his mygov account at the end of november saying about a discrepancy back from 2012 and come out yesterday and says they overpaid him and now he owes $3.8k.

    He is about to launch a dispute with them knowing that it's wrong.

    I'm all for data matching, particularly if it means Centrelink will begin sending out notices about money Centrelink owe them because they have underclaimed, or not claiming payments to which they're otherwise entitled.

    The Turnbull government's agenda is to make dealing with Centrelink so difficult that eventually almost no-one receives any benefits.

    The end result of that will be to push people into a life of crime instead.

    I got sent a notice via the MyGov site for when I was on Centrelink in 2010/11 saying due to ATO data matching I was working while receiving benefits.
    The company I was working for until Aug 2010 has since disappeared so I can't just call the company to show that I was not working for them between Jan-Apr 2011. I've managed to get in contact with one of my old managers, but trying to get them to do _anything_ for me, particularly at this time of the year, impossible...
    Not that I can actually submit any more details via the website as even after they said the "system unavailable" issue had been fixed I was getting it.

    Again: let's nickle and dime the poorest folks while Big Biz pays ZERO tax.

    It's somewhat convoluted but it goes like this.
    Liberal Govt wants public attention off Tax evading big biz
    Why? Could it be someone gets enormous Gifts & payback for ensuring to allow. i.e. corruption.
    LNP Govt TELLS Centrelink to hit recipients with demands for clawbaks, reversing the onus of proof to those people who have NO WAY of defending themselves.
    The public attention is focused on what the LNP Govt labels "dolebludgers" - not
    on the Tax Dodgers
    So: The Tax dodgers are happy - The LNP pollies are happy - The public is distracted - and the most vulnerable pay the bills.
    The age of entitlement is far from over inside the Liberal party.

    gasp.. the dole bludgers are hitting back. boo hoo, i have to work for a living.

    get off your fat ass and work, no one owe you a living!

      What if you are a single mother with no close or trustworthy relatives to care for your kids? Daycare usually costs more than a minimum salary's wage for a day. What if you are a disabled person unable to work? What if you find yourself growing old and obsolete in your field and keep getting looked over in favour of younger and more actualised job seekers? There are thousands of reasons why a person may not be able to work for a given period of time. In very few cases that reason is laziness or unwillingness.

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