As the headlines about the Centrelink debt recovery program show no sign of abatement, it is interesting to look at previous information the Department of Human Services gave to Senate estimates last year. The department’s own documents show that just 9.64% of all Centrelink recipients received an overpayment between July and December 2016.

centrelink-graph-1

This chart shows the percentage of people on particular payments who were identified as receiving overpayments in the last six months of 2015.

centrelink-overpayments

The department said that it did not collect data on underpayments, because if an underpayment was identified “the payment is corrected and no further action is required in the department’s system. Overpayments result in an outstanding debt that cannot be immediately repaid. The amount of an overpayment needs to be held in the department’s system until it is repaid.”

It also said there was no grace period for people to repay overpayments, even if the department is responsible for the overpayment.

When asked by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert if the debt recovery would be focusing only on those “with a capacity to pay”, or on unemployed and low-income earners, the tone-deaf answer implied that those still receiving benefits would not be negatively impacted by any of their meagre payments being withheld:

“The measure targets those people, with debts, no longer in receipt of a Centrelink payment and who have the financial capacity to repay the debt. People reliant on the social welfare system will not be negatively impacted by this proposal as they already repay their debts through agreed withholdings from their social welfare payments.”

The people living on Newstart think differently.

Peter Fray

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