197,000 Australians will have their Robodebt reviews dropped


Topic: 197,000 Australians will have their Robodebt reviews dropped

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Today, nearly 200,000 Australians will finally have their outstanding Robodebt cases dropped. So this is the automated Centrelink debt recovery programme that was rolled out by the former Coalition government between July 2015 and 2019. It used data matching algorithms in an attempt to identify the overpayment of Social Security benefits. But it wrongly accused many people of owing the government money. When the scheme was operating, 124,000 people were told their debts were being reviewed. 73,000 were not told at all that they were under review. Now, you have heard several stories over the years of the pressure and the distress this scheme put some people in. One of those stories was from Kath Madrick, who lost her son Jared to suicide after finding out he had a Centrelink debt of $2000.

KATH MADRICK [EXCERPT]: A computer sent him a discrepancy notice and a computer apparently sent him on the 28th a debt notice. At the end of the day. You know, somebody that hasn't had an income for four weeks should never have been sent discrepancy notices until he was receiving a payment. The night before the eve of his death he had two conversations with Centrelink, no debt was mentioned. And about approximately 4.45pm he came out and he was distressed about he now owed them $2000 and he wasn't going to get paid. He went in and desperately tried to apply for jobs He got agitated, he catastrophized, he left, and that was the last time I've seen him.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON, HOST: That's Kath who grieves the loss of her son Jarred. Amanda Rishworth is the Federal Minister for Social Services. Minister, good morning.

AMANDA RISHWORTH, MINISTER FOR SOCIAL SERVICES: Good morning, great to be with you.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: So what happens today? 

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Today the new Government is really going to draw a line in the sand on what has been an incredibly sorry saga, by making sure that those customers that were still having reviews that were never completed, or didn't even know they were under review, we're just going to end those reviews.  End it now and not raise any debts as a result of that. If any money was owing, it's not going to be pursued. And we're really finishing off this now.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: So how many cases will be dropped?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: At the moment, there's 197,000 customers that had a review that was never completed. They were called ‘in-flight reviews’ and they were put on hold after court action by the Commonwealth. The former government put those on hold. So, those reviews have been sitting there and causing a lot of people a lot of anxiety. And there are about 73,000 people that were not aware that any review had commenced. So we're saying let's put an end to this. This was a shameful part of our history. Especially when there were people raising concerns around this as early as 2016. The former government ignored those calls. So people will now if they did have a review receive a letter confirming their review is being scrapped and if they would like to know if they are included or want further information, there is a number to contact.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Okay, so that'll be official formal notification via letter? Because probably, as this makes news around the country, there'll be a few people who'll be picking up the phone or potentially or getting online to Centrelink today, but there is formal notification along the way within the next couple of days Minister?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Look we'll be sending letters out - or Service Australia will be sending letters out - confirming their review is being scrapped. But if people would like to get some clarification, if they're one of the 197,000 reviews that are being wiped, they can give a phone call to, and I'll give you the number if that works, 1800 171 846. That's 1800 171 846 they are able to call. 

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: You are listening to Amanda Rishworth, who is the Federal Minister for Social Services. Close to 200,000 Australians will have their outstanding Robodebt cases dropped today. And just to be clear, these are only people who were part of that particular recovery programme between 2015 and 2019. Other debts owing to Centrelink, those continue?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Absolutely. If there are legitimate debts that have been established by Services Australia, then obviously for the integrity of the social security system, we have to recover those debts. But this is for those that were caught up in that Robodebt scheme. There has been a lot of uncertainty because there were reviews underway. These reviews were paused in 2019 and no one's heard, if you've been caught up in that, what's happening. So we're saying enough is enough, we need to draw a line in the sand. Of course, there's the Royal Commission looking at how this came about, because we still are not really clear about how this came about. We need to make sure this doesn't happen again. But we also need to give certainty for individuals that had reviews that were never completed, up in the air. We need some finalisation on that. 

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: When is that final report out for the Royal Commission into the Robodebt scheme due? 

AMANDA RISHWORTH: The final report will be delivered to the Governor-General by the 18th of April 2023. Public hearings are going to begin shortly and there are a number of organisations that are supporting people making statements to that public hearing. So that will be critically important to make sure that we have a full understanding about how this came about, especially when red flags were being raised as far back as 2016. But nobody ever listened.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: And are you anticipating compensation or legal action as a result of the Royal Commission?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: There’s been already some settlements, legal settlements, made as a settlement with the Commonwealth under the previous government prior to further legal action being taken. That will really be a matter for the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission is having a clear look. But I think when I speak to most people what they want to know is that this won’t happen again. That’s the overwhelming comment that I get from people is that we need to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. 

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: How will you do that?

AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, there will be recommendations from the Royal Commission that will get to the bottom of what were the checks and balances? That’s exactly what the Royal Commission will be looking into.

REBECCA LEVINGSTON: Minister very much appreciate you taking the time this morning to give us that update. Thank you.