In relation to inaccurate claims made to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, and reported by the media today, Department of Human Services General Manager Hank Jongen makes the following response:
Commentary on the department’s online compliance system continues to incorrectly say 20 per cent of letters are being issued in error. This is misleading and a misrepresentation of the process.
Initial notices request information to explain differences in earned income between the Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink records. These result in a debt in 80 per cent of cases. The remaining 20 per cent are instances where people have explained the difference and don’t owe any money following assessment of this updated information.
This is how the system is designed to work, in line with the legal requirements of welfare recipients to report all changes in circumstances and the department’s obligation to protect government outlays.
There has been no increase in social work referrals due to the online compliance measure. Sadly, we have seen more referrals due to family and domestic violence, which reflects the Government’s additional focus and increased staff training in this area.
Staff are transferring calls to social workers where necessary as per our standard process and we are meeting our service standards. There have been no procedural issues with social workers being available.
All staff undertaking these reviews received additional training.
Decision-making and reviews
Only skilled staff undertake decision-making in respect to each case. All cases are appropriately considered, including complex ones.
Authorised Review Officers are applying decisions consistent with usual practice—there is no instruction to vary how they consider cases related to this compliance activity.
Quotas and overtime
Staff have not been instructed to raise six to 10 debt notices per day as part of this measure. There is no quota, debt notices are raised as debts are identified.
However, as part of our normal practice we do have service standard targets for dealing with debts as quickly as possible, which may include overtime. It would appear these two processes have been confused. These are long-standing arrangements that have been in place for many years. Staff are expected to meet quality and efficient service standards for all Australians.
Staff are clearly instructed to consider any query about a debt and any request to take into account financial hardship, including pausing the repayment.
It is misleading to assert staff have been instructed not to do this. Debts have been processed as per normal procedures.
Financial circumstances are considered as part of our normal processes. The allegation that staff have been penalised for suggesting repayment options to people is ludicrous.
Welfare recipients who are identified as vulnerable are not part of this online compliance activity measure.