Unionised Centrelink staff have banded together to speak out against the Department of Human Services' botched data matching system, claiming the agency refused to listen to warnings that it was problematic.
The Community and Public Sector Union - representing "thousands" of unionised departmental staff - today published an open letter to Centrelink customers acknowledging the 'unfairness' of the automated debt notice system.
"We need to tell you that we see your pain and acknowledge your fear. We know you are angry and we are too. We know that the people of Australia deserve better," the open letter states.
"We know that the automated debt notices are unfair, unjust and callous. We acknowledge that in a great many cases, they are not your debts.
"Many of us warned the Department of Human Services that the debt system wouldn’t work. Despite our combined hundreds of years’ experience in welfare systems, the department is still not listening."
The new data matching process implemented by DHS mid last year has been accused of a high error rate and utilising a dragnet approach that has seen welfare recipients wrongly accused of owing money to the government, and asked to pay often thousands of dollars back.
A common complaint is that the system is unable to match business names with trading names, meaning that the Centrelink system will record a person as having worked two jobs instead of one.
This system error was confirmed by an anonymous whistleblower in a letter published by political activist group GetUp last week.
The whistleblower also revealed Centrelink staff were being told not to fix mistakes in the automatically-generated debt notices.
Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen claimed the whistleblower's claims "do not accurately represent how the system works".
Critics of the system say welfare recipients are unfairly lumped with the burden of correcting errors; after three weeks from the initial notice, Centrelink assumes the debt notice is correct if it hasn't received a response and demands the debt be repaid.
Jongen has said he is confident in the system and claimed the number of complaints the agency had received was "minimal".‘
National ombudsman Colin Neave has commenced an own-motion investigation into the issue.