Bass Labor MP Ross Hart says his office is doing the work of Centrelink staff, assisting constituents with contesting and resolving letters sent to them from Centrelink demanding repayments of welfare.
Mr Hart said that his office has 21 Centrelink complaints on file that his staff are working to resolve, with “many more” complaints in the past two weeks.
Mr Hart added that he is concerned for Centrelink staff who are struggling to deal with the situation.
A letter issued by the Community and Public Sector Union on Wednesday, on behalf of Centrelink staff, said Centrelink is “in crisis” and that staff had warned the Department of Human Services that the system was flawed.
“If anybody has any query about whether it’s appropriate to supervise the payment system – of course it’s appropriate to supervise the payment system, but you’ve got to do it properly,” Mr Hart said.
“There are lines in the sand that shouldn’t be crossed and when you take your budget crisis out on people that are low-paid, on fixed incomes, on pensions and benefits … it’s all just inherently unfair.”
A key concern for Mr Hart is debt repayments being automatically deducted from welfare payments, leaving “people who are in really disadvantaged situations” financially short.
He said one constituent contacted him when faced with this situation and it was only through negotiation with Centrelink that the repayments were reduced down to a manageable amount.
“The other scenario that I am really concerned about, and I’ve heard this from a couple of caucus colleagues, is that elderly people who might have a small nest egg, a small amount of money for a rainy day, getting a demand for information from Centrelink, “ Mr Hart said.
“They are paying rather than going through the process of disputing with Centrelink.”
An analysis by The Age’s economics editor, Peter Martin, considered the estimated 20 per cent error rate in Centrelink’s automatic data-matching could be far worse – as much as 90 per cent.
Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen, however, rejected that estimation, saying the figure was “plucked out of the air [and] doesn't serve the public discussion well”.
“We have confidence in the system and how it is helping us conduct compliance activity more efficiently,” Mr Jongen said.