Transcript: 2GB Sydney, Mornings with Ray Hadley interview with Luke Grant

20 January 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
Online Compliance System
E&OE

LUKE GRANT:
Now there are reports today that Centrelink is knowingly sending incorrect debt collection letters. Just let me repeat- I mean, this is a charge against the Australian Public Service.

Reports today that Centrelink is knowingly sending incorrect debt collection letters. So-called whistle-blowers have come forward with an 8 page document claiming Centrelink managers are forcing workers to enforce debts that are wrong.

The Government brought the data-matching program in an effort to add $4.5 billion to the budget bottom line. Well, I'll just make the point, as I said earlier, if the Government has overpaid individuals, then surely it is incumbent upon that Government, on behalf of taxpayers everywhere, to make sure that the numbers match and that we pay out what we should pay out, not a cent more. Or I should say, cent less.

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge has spoken out against some of these claims, saying they are completely untrue, and he's on the line. Morning, Minister.

ALAN TUDGE:
Good morning, Luke.

LUKE GRANT:
Now, this whistle-blower claims compliance officers are forced to ignore incorrect debts. I think I know what you're going to say, but I have to ask you, is that true?

ALAN TUDGE:
No, that's not true, and indeed, my department put out a statement yesterday that senior officials going through each of those claims and categorically saying that they are not correct. So that doesn't happen. Now, as you know, Luke, what does happen is that Centrelink looks at this self-reported income data which a person gives to Centrelink, and it compares that with the income data which the Australian Taxation Office has on the person.

And if there's a discrepancy, well then the question is put to the individual, why is there a discrepancy, and if you'd like to explain it, please do so. That's the process. It's been a process around for a very long time, by the way, and it is there to identify if there has been overpayments, and on many occasions, there has been.

LUKE GRANT:

Now, I notice one of your opposite numbers in the ALP has made the point that anyone who receives a debt request or a request for repayment or notification that there may be a debt has plenty of time to respond and have it dealt with. I think Linda Burney would disagree with that, saying that there's something like only three weeks. Can you just confirm or otherwise that?

ALAN TUDGE:

Yeah, so the initial letter says that you have 21 days to jump online and provide updated information, if indeed that's what you need to do. You can automatically request an extension, and as soon as you ask for one, you get it, and that's another week. You can automatically request a second extension, and if there's extenuating circumstances, please call up Centrelink and explain why you need more time.

I should also say that at any time, even after you've completed the information, if you still think that the result is incorrect, you can ask for an internal review. If you're dissatisfied with that internal review, you can then appeal to a tribunal.

All of those options are free, and I would encourage people if they still think that the debt notice which they have is wrong, take advantage of those opportunities. They are their rights to do so, and they should call up the 1800 number and the Centrelink official will help them, take them through that process.

LUKE GRANT:

See, I saw a bloke from GetUp, and I made commentary about GetUp's involvement here, and they have got this website, fraudstop.com.au, which seems to allege in its title that Centrelink is committing fraud. They're investigating class action, and they're going to go after Christian Porter in his seat. Good luck with that. But this bloke from GetUp was making the point that with these letters- and they make the claim that most of them are wrong, and you would dispute that.

Just on that, before I get to the point I was going to make, what percentage of the letters could be inaccurate, if I can put it that way?

ALAN TUDGE:

Well, the first letter which goes out goes out seeking information from the recipient. That's all it does. Now, every single one of the letters that goes out identifies a discrepancy between the self-reported data to Centrelink with the data which the Australian Taxation Office has on that individual. Every letter identifies the discrepancy. In some cases - and to date it's been about 20 per cent of cases - the recipient jumps online and is able to explain why there's a discrepancy. Sometimes it's due to the fact that an employer may have said, for example, that the person worked between May and September and in fact they only worked between May and June, and when that's identified, it fixes up the matter.

But in many cases, Luke, unfortunately a person did not declare their full income or did not declare a job which they had, and that means they were being overpaid, and even some of the highly publicised cases, that is the case, where people have not declared a job which they had.

And if you're not declaring your job, it means you're getting more welfare payments than you're entitled to, and that deserves to be paid back to the taxpayer.

LUKE GRANT:

So I have to ask you that one in five letters have been incorrectly sent? Is that the point here?

ALAN TUDGE:

No.

LUKE GRANT:

No.

ALAN TUDGE:

It's not- it's …

LUKE GRANT:

 [Interrupts] So what is that 20% figure? What does that represent?

ALAN TUDGE:

That represents on 20% of occasions, people have received the request for information letter and have jumped online or called up Centrelink and they have been able to validly explain why there's a discrepancy between the self-reported income data to Centrelink with the income data that is on their file at the Australian Taxation Office, on 20 per cent of occasions.

LUKE GRANT:

[Talks over] So now just let me stop- Alan, just let me stop you there, mate. Now, you see, many of us - given the campaign from the other side and these disrupters at GetUp - we thought that one-fifth of letters you sent out were sent out in error.

In fact, they weren't. They were sent out based on the best information available to the officials at Centrelink, but subsequent to a response from the recipient, they've cleared the matter up, and they've gone on with their lives. Is that the point?

ALAN TUDGE:

That is absolutely right.

LUKE GRANT:

Oh, well this is a bloody outrage, mate. Sorry for dropping the B word, but this is disgraceful.

ALAN TUDGE:

It is, and I've been annoyed with the Labor Party, who are claiming that the first letter which goes out is a debt letter. It's not. The first letter identifies the discrepancy and asks for information and provides the opportunity for the recipients to clear it up.

They then actually get a second opportunity to clear it up if they're dissatisfied with the result from that. They ask for an internal review. They then get a third opportunity as well by going to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

All of those opportunities are free of charge, and at any time you can ask for a review; even if you've paid back your debt, by the way, you can update your information. So I encourage people to do that. It is their right to do that. They have that opportunity to do it if they're dissatisfied.

We want the process to be fair. We want to improve the system, and we've already made some tweaks to the system. We'll constantly make refinements to it, but the core principle is that where there's a discrepancy in information, we will be asking people to explain that discrepancy, because we think that's legitimate to do so. People have been in receipt of thousands of dollars on most occasions, and we don't think it's unreasonable for them to spend a bit of time explaining a discrepancy if one exists.

LUKE GRANT:

No, 100 per cent. You're spot-on, and as a taxpayer, I'm sure other taxpayers would say to you, particularly when we've got debt as far as the eye can see and a Parliament not prepared to really get tough on cutting back where perhaps it might, given the numbers, the crossbenchers and the like.

We want you to do this, and look, and I'm sorry if people get offended by getting a letter. I might get offended by a letter from the Tax Department, but for God's sake. It's taxpayers' money; it's got to be spent appropriately, and you've got to do the right thing with it. I'm about to bump into news and other things, Alan, but good of you to jump on the phone and talk to us today, and keep going. Doing a good job.

ALAN TUDGE:

Thanks very much, Luke.

LUKE GRANT:

All the best to you. Alan Tudge, the Human Services Minister.

[ENDS]