Robo-debt should be replaced with an accurate system people can trust

Victoria Legal Aid

The robo-debt system is truly Orwellian. I have heard politicians say that you just need to call up Centrelink to fix your debt. Well I have been asking for proof of the alleged debt for over two years and I haven’t been able to get to the bottom of it.

My work is as a licensed rigger. This is often on big, potentially dangerous jobs that many people are unwilling to do. It involves construction or maintenance on bridges, towers, steel works or other large industrial plants. The nature of the work means short bursts of intense activity of up to 100 hours a week, followed by nothing.

That is what the economics of the labor market demands and it’s the only way I can get paid work. I’ve always endeavored to declare my income to Centrelink. When I haven’t had the pay slips, I have tried to over-estimate the amount.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I was told I owed over $7000 due to an alleged robo-debt. I thought that this was mistake. Surely a quick chat with Centrelink would clear this up? But it became clear to me that they were using a flawed methodology of income averaging because of an ignorance of the way the labor market works.

When I informed Centrelink of this they were seemingly willfully ignorant. I asked them to prove the debt in a court of law. They were unwilling. They told me to provide bank statements. Historical bank statements are expensive – $4 per page over 12 months. This was money I didn’t have. I asked Centrelink for a billing address so they could pay, but they refused to do so. Almost two years ago they said they would contact my employer for payslips. They have not done this.

It seems very unfair that they expect me to incur costs and do their work for free because they have an idea in their head about my income.

Trying to go about disproving the alleged debt to Centrelink has been like talking to a brick wall. I have asked for records of my reporting and an explanation of the alleged debt and I’ve been told to make a FOI request. Every Freedom of Information request I put in they send me a load of gobbledygook that purports to be what I asked for, but it isn’t.

If you want to talk to someone in person, the Compliance branch tells you to go to your local Centrelink office. Staff there are overworked and under the pump. They didn’t know anything about my circumstances and directed me to a telephone in the corner to talk to the compliance branch again.

At this point Centrelink say they’ve done a reassessment and then a review of my alleged debt, but they’ve never attempted to prove to me how I owe any money to them. Their system is so opaque.

They put me a payment plan against my will. They sent a letter saying ‘we don’t expect you to pay more than you can afford’. On $225 a week how much could you afford to pay?

They take a minimum of $15 per fortnight. Every three months I have to contact Centrelink to beg for it to not be raised to $85 a fortnight.

One day a week I have my grandchildren so that my daughter-in-law can go to work. The eldest is at kinder. I feel it deeply in the pit of my stomach when I have to say to her, “Sorry darling we can’t get an ice-cream on the way home, let’s go and pick some herbs instead”.

Since I’ve been in this situation anytime I’ve gotten work I’ve physically gone into a Centrelink to confirm my income because I’m so worried that I could get another robo-debt.

People attending this morning’s hearing would probably have used infrastructure to get to this venue that I’ve played a big part in building. I think I have contributed as a taxpayer and a citizen and I think it’s fair to ask for help from the government from time to time. I do not deserve to be treated the way robo-debt has treated me.

I’m not doing this because I want Centrelink to wipe my debt, I want them to stop using averaging, which would never work for someone in my employment situation. I want them to cease and desist because this is hurting a lot of people.

Letecia Luty: statement to Senate Community Affairs References Committee

My experience with Robo-debt has been confusing and unfair. Despite spending so much time trying to understand the system, I don’t have any trust in the way Centrelink comes up with robo-debts.

Last year, Centrelink asked me to give them information about my income from 2011 when I was on Youth Allowance. I asked my old employer for my payslips, but when they didn’t send anything I left it, thinking that they would get back to me soon. At the time I was feeling overwhelmed as I was new to working full time and helping care for a family member who had a serious mental illness.

When you have a lot going on in your life, the impersonal letters and the fact that it is so hard to get on to someone to talk to at Centrelink makes putting it off a lot easier. I have experienced being on hold with Centrelink for one hour, and when I’d finally be on the line with someone, the line would suddenly cut out and I wouldn’t be able to go through another whole hour of waiting.

In February this year, a Centrelink officer called me and said I had a robo-debt of more than $2300. They asked me to “accept” the debt. They did not explain what the robo-debt was based on and it felt quite pushy, like I had no choice but to accept the debt. I remember being advised that I could always ask for a review, even after accepting the debt.

I had to contact my old employer several times, because they originally said they didn’t keep payslips going back that long. Eventually a kind person in their Payroll or Human Resources department manually went back into their systems and found my old payslips. I’m lucky they were still trading, and that they managed to find files older than 7 years.

I asked Centrelink for an Authorised Review Officer to look at my case. My lawyer told me it’s supposed to be a proper review process. But instead of an ARO review, Centrelink just sent me a letter in April saying I had a debt of $400 instead of $2300. They didn’t explain how they reached that number so I wasn’t sure if I could trust the new amount. Thinking about the time and energy I would need to spend to check the amount made me feel stressed and anxious.

It seems wrong that Centrelink can refuse to do an ARO review after I was told I could ask for one. They’ve now told me I have to go through someone called a “subject matter expert” before I can get an ARO review. It was a bit frustrating because the person I spoke to didn’t even seem to know what an ARO review was. It feels like they keep putting obstacles in my path. I am grateful I got legal advice because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t know about my rights. I could have paid off a debt that I did not owe. I am certain a lot of people have done this because following up with Centrelink and gathering a lot of old documents is really hard.

Robo-debt feels like a bullying system that affects people who are the most vulnerable.

A lot of people don’t know their rights or have the capacity to defend themselves when given an incorrect debt. I don’t think it’s right that Centrelink comes after people for debts without being sure that they owe money, especially when it’s people who are in need of support who go to Centrelink in the first place.

/Public Release.