Centrelink office

The Department of Human Services is using every excuse possible in order to avoid releasing information on Centrelink’s controversial online data matching debt system, with many freedom of information requests refused or delayed, with different excuses each time.

Crikey put a request into the department in December after breaking the news that the system was systematically targeting people who did not owe debts to Centrelink, thanks to a flawed system of data matching using Australian Tax Office data. The department first asked for an extension of 15 days over the Christmas holiday period (an extension that is not granted to those receiving debt notices from the agency). Then DHS stated there were no documents relating to the online compliance intervention system — the very terms used by DHS media staff in statements given to Crikey. “I cannot identify the documents you want and I am asking you to provide us with more specific details about the documents you are seeking,” the letter read.

When asked for phone contact details or a person to speak to, the department then offered the explanation that a request including “external communication” would include customers and would likely be refused on a practical basis — that there were just too many documents. Suddenly the documents that couldn’t be found did exist. This email used the term “automated data matching”. When the ABC’s Ashlynne McGhee made a request for documents related to “Centrelink’s data matching/debt recovery scheme” she was told “it is not clear which program or scheme you are referring to in your request”.

Following a revised request, the department again refused Crikey‘s request on practical refusal grounds because the request involved too much work for the department.

DHS, which does not name its freedom of information staff in correspondence with journalists and the public, has a number of excuses for refusals and delays, as shown through requests made on the Right to Know website. The freedom of information guidelines state that departments should take “reasonable steps” to assist applicants with their requests, including where applicants may have a lack of knowledge of the structure of government and agency functions — applicants being unaware of internal terminology for programs or systems would fall under this guideline.

After asking Ben Fairless to define “IT incidents” or “bug reports” in his request, DHS has asked for an extension because it must ask a third party (the ATO) for permission to release the information.

Journalist Jackson Gothe-Snape requested “the document that was first approved by the Minister that proposes the policy of establishing or implementing Taskforce Integrity”. DHS says it needs a 30-day extension because the release would cover “Commonwealth-State relations”.

Anthony Baxter also received a refusal saying his request was too much work. Baxter asked for:

“all documentation and internal communications related to the testing and evaluation process around the Centrelink online compliance scheme, in particular around the processes to minimise the risk of issuing incorrect debt notices caused by averaging annual earnings across a year.”

The department’s correspondence with him estimates there would be 15,000 pages to look through in that request — after saying earlier in January that no such documents exist.

Justin Marilyn Warren has requested a review of his FoI request after being told that documents registering risks in the Taskforce Integrity project did not exist.

There has been a spate of freedom of information requests to the department following continued reporting and pressure on the government and the department over the automatic debt notices, which are targeting people who do not owe debts and sending debts to debt collectors. Wait times to speak to Centrelink’s review officers also means it is difficult for people to challenge their debts. When asked about the system in question time yesterday, Minister Alan Tudge quoted a story about a man who declared income of $5000 over two years instead of the $100,000 he had earnt — dodging the whole issue of mistargeted notices. Labor and the Greens have are set to move for a Senate Inquiry into the system, where perhaps some of these questions will be answered.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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