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Issue #1789      August 9, 2017

Dehumanising human services

Since 2010-11, the government has cut staffing in the Department of Human Services (DHS) by over 15 percent with the loss of 5,500 jobs. The cuts have hit Centrelink – its staff and clients – with a sledge-hammer. Information provided to a Senate committee earlier this year showed that the “functional and efficiency reviews” established in May 2014 by the Hockey/Abbott budget would cut $3.2 billion from social services between the 2014-15 financial year and 2020-21. Education and training, health and child support are among other DHS services in for the chop.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) reports that more than 36 million calls to the DHS went unanswered in 2015-2016 and of the calls that did get through wait times were well over an hour. Some have reported calling multiple times and spending hours on the phone to speak to Centrelink staff. There is one example of a person attempting to call 86 times over three days and still not getting through.

The result has been huge queues at Department of Human Services offices, staff directed to tell people to go online and customers spending hours of waiting on the telephone.

DHS staff have reported that delays in payments for Austudy and the Youth Allowance have resulted in extreme financial hardship and even the deferment or abandonment of study. Likewise they have reported that significant delays of carer’s payments have put vulnerable families in a desperate position.

Automated theft

Perhaps the most serious of the government’s attacks on social security recipients is its Online Compliance Intervention (OIC) regime for recovery of alleged overpayments.

Means testing for eligibility for social security is based on fortnightly income. If in a particular fortnight your income is above the threshold you do not receive a payment. Then if it falls below that threshold for a period of time, perhaps through casual work or unemployment, you receive a payment.

DHS staff would manually check your records and then contact you. They might contact your employer to check on how much you were paid and if there were any discrepancies with the information you provided.

The DHS has embarked on a new, automated data-matching process drawing on Australian Taxation Office records. The ATO data does not provide details of fortnightly income, only quarterly. The DHS automatically averages out your annual income by dividing by 26 and comes to an average fortnightly amount. This figure does not reflect the fluctuations in income and should not be used to determine if there are outstanding debts.

But it is being used and the minister responsible sees nothing wrong with that. The onus has been placed on recipients of debt notices to track down payslips and employment history from up to six years ago to prove they did not wrongly claim benefits. How many people could produce fortnightly pay slips dating back six years?

As pointed out by the government’s former chief digital adviser, the problems have affected people least capable of dealing with government harassment. How do the homeless, the illiterate, people with disability or experiencing mental health issues cope with such requirements? If they are constantly changing jobs, picking up casual work here and there, how do they even remember the names of former employers to chase up evidence?

And who has the time, skills and patience to do battle with the DHS bureaucracy?

The CPSU reports that staff have been expressly told not to fix mistakes in debt notices generated by the automated system even when they could prove the debts were wrong.

Senate inquiry

A report released by a recent Senate Inquiry into the automated system exposes the inhumanity and cruelty of the government’s latest exercise in cost-cutting.

The report calls for the OCI regime to be put on hold until all procedural flaws are addressed and other recommendations in the report are addressed.

The committee recommended that all people who have had a debt amount determined through the use of income averaging should have their debt amounts re-assessed immediately by a team of departmental officers with specialist knowledge of the OCI program, using accurate income data sourced from employers.

It also recommended that the department take full responsibility for calculating verifiable debts based on fortnightly earnings and not on an assumed average.

It also makes other recommendations regarding additional increased investment in communication channels and staffing, improving privacy of clients, a review of funding for community legal services and the development of appropriate guidelines on appropriate levels of debt repayment to income ratios, to ensure that debt repayments do not impact any individual’s ability to purchase life essentials.

Prior to the automation, Department of Human Services staff would manually check the records and then contact recipients.

DHS staff have reported that the automation is in chaos and that staff morale is low.

Not surprisingly, client aggression has risen, with increasing numbers of DHS offices requiring permanent security guards.

Years of cuts in the name of “efficiency dividends” have crippled the public sector, resulted in loss of services, increased inefficiencies and put greater pressure on remaining staff to do the impossible.

Staff report that anger and rage generated by the data matching strategy had placed counter staff under confronting pressure. The aggression is such that the Department of Human Services recently sought private contractors to provide “Advanced Customer Aggression Training Services”.

Next article – Editorial – CSIRO cuts threaten our future

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