ACT Council of Social Service Inc.

Justice | Equity | Social Inclusion | Reconciliation

Media release: Numbers confirm robo-debt is epic administration fail

8 April 2017

Figures obtained through a Senate Question on Notice by Senator Katy Gallagher and released today (see Attachment A below) have confirmed concerns about the accuracy of the Federal Government’s Automated Debt Recovery Program which has targeted thousands of income support customers around Australian with automated Centrelink debt letters.

The numbers reveal that 2,591 Canberrans were issued with automated debt recovery notices by Centrelink and of these 668 either updated their details and resolved the matter prior to a debt being issued or had a debt reduced.

ACTCOSS Director, Susan Helyar, said:

“Around two and a half thousand Canberrans have received an unpleasant surprise in the letterbox since this program began and now these numbers suggest that over a quarter of them were unnecessarily targeted and frightened by this program.

“That’s a pretty high error rate for a government program whichever way you cut it – especially one that has caused profound distress and human suffering as we have been hearing at the Senate Community Affairs Reference Group Inquiry.

“Imagine the backlash that would confront a Canberra bank, business or health fund if they churned out digitised debt letters to their customers and 25% of them turned out not to owe the debt or to owe a different amount of debt?

“It would be simply unacceptable and we would all be holding it up as an epic failure of administration. We should be holding government to a much higher standard. These numbers make it clear that this program is a standout administrative failure and should be scrapped.

“We’re also concerned about the high number of people targeted for a debt recovery fee (1,007 people or just under half of the number of people who received letters) given the high error rates in the overall program”, Ms Helyar said.  

The Senate inquiry recently heard evidence that Canberra legal and financial counselling services had been approached by vulnerable people since the program started and that the bulk of these cases have been resolved in the clients’ favour because the debt was not owed.

The inquiry has re-opened submissions until 19 April 2017 and ACTCOSS encourages individuals affected by the program to make a submission.

For more information or comment please contact
Susan Helyar, Director, on 0448 791 987 or 02 6202 7200.

Attachment A

SENATOR GALLAGHER asked the Minister representing the Minister for Human Services, in writing, on 23 February 2017:

With reference to Centrelink's automated data-matching system which commenced in July 2016:

  1. How many people in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have been sent a letter as a result of the automated data-matching system.
  2. What is the number of people in the ACT who:
    1. have managed to resolve the matter online;
    2. did not have a debt with Centrelink after updating their details;
    3. had a debt reduced after updating their details;
    4. have repaid their debt;
    5. have entered into a payment plan to repay their debt;
    6. have requested a review from an Authorised Review Officer; and
    7. have had a 10% recovery fee applied.
  3. How many people in the ACT are having their debt sought by a debt collector.
  4. What is the number of cases in the ACT that have been taken to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.


SENATOR THE HON SCOTT RYAN, on behalf of the Minister for Human Services has provided the following answer to the honourable Senator’s question:

For the period 1 July 2016 to 31 January 2017 for people residing in the ACT:

  1. 2,591 people have had an assessment initiated.
    1. 1,983 assessments have been finalised. This includes 1,037 assessments finalised online.
    2. 473 people updated their details and resolved the matter prior to a debt being issued.
    3. 195 people had a debt reduced.
    4. 251 people have repaid their debt.
    5. 467 people have a repayment plan.
    6. 12 people have requested a review from an Authorised Review Officer.
    7. 1,007 have had a 10 per cent recovery fee applied.
  3. 70 people are having their debt sought by a debt collector, as they have entered into an arrangement with the debt collector.
  4. No people have taken their case to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

Related reading:

ACTCOSS submission to Centrelink inquiry

ACOSS resource on Centrelink inquiry