Over 2000 people died after receiving Centrelink robo-debt notice, figures reveal.
More than 2030 people died after receiving a Centrelink debt notice, also known as robo-debt, according to new data released by the Department of Human Services.
Of those, 429 – roughly one-fifth – were aged under 35. The figures cover a period from July 2016 to October 2018.
To give you a comparison, there were 3139 deaths of people aged between 15 and 35 in 2016 overall, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
While the department does not collect data on the cause for death in these cases, nearly a third – 663 people – were classified as “vulnerable”, which means they had complex needs like mental illness, drug use or were victims of domestic violence.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, who asked the Department for the information, told Hack that there could be more people with vulnerabilities than what is reflected in the official stats.
Have you received a robo-debt notice? We want to hear what the experience was like for you. Send us a message on Facebook or email us here.
“Because of the way the system works at the moment, people don’t feel confident or don’t feel safe or trust the person that they’re reporting to flag that they feel vulnerable, or flag that they might have poor mental health at the time,” she said.
Senator Siewert also said evidence from a Senate inquiry into the system found that getting a debt notice when you’ve done nothing wrong can bring on depression or anxiety.
“People talk about feeling stressed and anxious through the system, feeling humiliated, and they get depressed.”
“That sets alarm bells for me, the high proportion of people with vulnerabilities,” she said.
The vast majority of people who died were still receiving Centrelink payments at the time of their deaths. Responsibility for Centrelink lies with the Department of Human Services.
More than 500 people who died were receiving Newstart payments, and a further 520 were on the Disability Support Pension.
Men were twice as likely to die than women.
Minister says there’s no link
A spokesperson for Human Services Minister, Michael Keenan, told Hack the automatic debt notice process is “reasonable, lawful and fair”.
They said the department had sent out 900,000 discrepancy notices – that is, a letter asking the welfare recipient to explain why the info they’ve given doesn’t match what the department has. That doesn’t always lead to a formal debt notice because the recipients of the letter can provide additional information that clears the discrepancy.
“Any suggestion that the Department of Human Services’ debt recovery efforts have contributed to customer deaths is simply not supported by the facts or statistics,” the spokesperson said.
“The department sent more than 900,000 debt letters to individuals during the period 1 July 2016 to 31 October 2018. A total of 2030 of those individuals died during the same period, which represents 0.21 per cent.”
It’s important to note here that the figures provided by the spokesperson include deaths of people who receive a pension payment, which by definition puts them in the older age bracket.
“The number of days that elapsed between customers receiving a debt letter and their death was 222 days, or almost eight months. Any number of factors in an individual’s life could have contributed to their death during such an extended period and it would be foolhardy to draw a link to one particular cause without evidence to support such a claim,” the spokesperson said.
“Debt recovery remains an important priority for the Coalition Government and where people have been overpaid, they will be required to pay the money back. Since 1 July 2016, this Government has achieved savings of $2.9 billion through cracking down on welfare fraud and non-compliance.”
Senator Siewert will seek further information from the department. She wants answers to clarify how, if at all, the robo-debt system exacerbates stress and anxiety.
“I find it quite disturbing, and it indicates to me that the department should investigate further and I’ll be chasing this up during Senate estimates this week,” Senator Siewert said.
What is robo-debt?
In 2016, Centrelink started using a computer system to match up tax records with welfare payments, to see if there were any discrepancies.
The old non-automated system generated 20,000 letters to people who had received Centrelink payments a year. But in the early days of the new system, that jumped to 20,000 letters a week.
Centrelink has raised nearly 410,000 debt notices since the automated system began in July 2016, but 70,000 have been written off or reduced already.
“Robodebt has unleashed thousands of debt notices in error to parents, people with disabilities, carers, students and people seeking paid work, resulting in people slapped with Centrelink debts they do not owe or debts higher than they owe,” ACOSS CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie said.
“It has been a devastating abuse of government power that has caused extensive harm, particularly among people who are the most vulnerable in our community.”
The family of 28-year old Melbourne musician Rhys Cauzzo told The Saturday Paper that “aggressive” payment demands from a debt-collection agency on behalf of Centrelink contributed to his suicide.
“People with severe depression don’t handle financial pressure. And these numbers didn’t make sense. He was always anal about keeping financial records,” Rhys’ mother, Jenny Miller, said.
Because it was computer-generated, Hack started hearing stories of how people were told they owed thousands of dollars due to admin errors.
Like hospitality worker Laura, who was told she owed $24,000 – basically her annual income.
“[I felt] physically sick and I lost my shit straight away.”
Laura told Hack getting the debt notice was stressful and impacted her mental health.
“I’ve suffered from depression for a very, very long time and especially at the end of last year when I first got this debt I was already not feeling well because of other things, so I ended up not being at work for a month,” she said.
“No one’s listening… I’m basically being called a fraud and a liar and that I don’t matter.”
“It straight away said I was guilty, and a year later [I’m still trying] to prove I’m not guilty,” Laura said.
“That’s a year’s worth of my life of stress and struggle that I shouldn’t have had to deal with… It’s a joke.”