Victoria Legal Aid

During the pandemic a fair and trustworthy social security system is essential – our evidence on robo-debt

Our organisation gave evidence to the Senate Committee looking into robo-debt. We've argued that with record numbers of people accessing social security due to COVID-19, it’s essential that the lessons arising from the failure of Centrelink’s robo-debt scheme are learned.

Thursday 19 August 2021 12:00am

With record numbers of people accessing social security due to COVID-19, it’s essential that the lessons arising from the failure of Centrelink’s robo-debt scheme are learned.

‘Millions of Australians access social security in their lifetime. Never has this been more important than now, as we deal with unprecedented levels of poverty and hardship flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic,’ Joel Townsend, Program Manager of Economic and Social Rights told a Senate committee.

‘We consider that the ongoing work of this committee presents a crucial opportunity to make sure the Australian government and policy makers learn from the mistakes of robo-debt and commit to real and lasting change in the way our social safety net works,’ said Rowan McRae, Executive Director of Civil Justice Access and Equity.

Rowan noted that the Australian Government has committed to refund and waive almost a billion dollars in unlawful robo-debts, to almost half a million people.

‘As a legal assistance provider that supported some of the most marginalised community members with robo-debts, we saw and we reiterate, that the effect of robo-debt was not just financial. Many people made sacrifices to pay back money they didn’t owe. They spent time and energy trying to understand and navigate a complex and flawed process. They felt mistrusted and judged, often humiliated and overwhelmed. This damage is hard to undo with a monetary refund, coming years after the fact’, said Rowan.

'Centrelink’s debt recovery practices need to be revised as part of the post-robo-debt system re-design. We saw directly that the processes of adding interest and penalties, garnishing tax returns, and referring robo-debts to external debt collectors, caused significant hardship for clients', said Joel.

'We encourage the committee to make findings and recommendations that support reform and accountability. We believe it is crucial that measures be built in that prevent the policy and practice failure robo-debt represents, and the hardship it inflicted, from ever happening again' he said.

We outlined the following changes we see as essential to redesigning a fairer, smarter social security system that people can trust.

  1. Future changes to the social security system should be designed and discussed with service users and stakeholders. The complexity and confusion of the robo-debt processes and the lack of respect afforded to recipients could and should have been avoided. Embedding practices of consultation and co-design is important for rebuilding trust and confidence in how Centrelink engages with and treats people who rely on its services.
  2. When people exercise their rights to have Centrelink’s decisions reviewed, the subsequent decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, should be heeded and necessary changes flowing from these decisions should be implemented. As early as 2017, the Tribunal found that robo-debt was unlawful, but no changes were made to policies and procedures in response to these decisions. If the Government had responded to Tribunal decisions earlier and implemented changes, it could have prevented significant hardship for hundreds of thousands of people who were affected by robo-debt after 2017.
  3. A renewed commitment to transparency and effective oversight in government policy design and implementation. This includes requirements for clear, publicly available policies that guide decisions, engagement with stakeholders and the legal assistance sector around implementation, accessible communication explaining debt calculations and decisions, prompt responses to Freedom of Information requests, and effective mechanisms for reviewing government programs and processes. These safeguards would have helped avoid the extent and duration of the failures of robo-debt.

More information

Read our Statements to senate inquiry into robo-debt.

Reviewed 14 April 2022