Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon attacks Centrelink debt recovery scheme

Labor Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon.
Labor Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon.

Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon says the federal government should be “condemned” for the way it has pursued people in need over “so called Centrelink debts”.

But the government has defended its actions, saying it has a responsibility to make sure the welfare system was “fair and reasonable” for recipients and taxpayers alike.

The Labor MP wasted no time launching into the new parliamentary year last week, using the first sitting day in Canberra on Tuesday to lay into the Coalition over its controversial welfare debt claw-back measures.

Centrelink has been criticised recently for issuing thousands of debt collection notices to current and former welfare recipients, with some claiming to have been targeted falsely.

The scheme began after the agency became capable of comparing its clients’ declarations with Australian Taxation Office data.

Mr Fitzgibbon told Parliament he believed the measures took aim at students, elderly people and people in genuine need of help.

They no longer have the pay slips and the records from seven years ago.

Hunter MP Joel Fitzgibbon

“Many of these debts actually do not exist and many of them go back so far — in some cases in my electorate for seven years or more — and people are not in the position to challenge the debt,” he said. 

“They no longer have the pay slips and the records from seven years ago. This must stop.”

Human Services Minister Alan Tudge told Parliament on Thursday that data checking had been introduced by Labor in 1990.

He said about 20 per cent of people who received a letter saying there was a discrepancy between Centrelink and ATO data had valid explanations, which meant no debt notice was issued.

“At all times, a person can speak to a Centrelink official in relation to that letter or in relation to any issue which they may raise,” he said. 

“Sometimes, people can explain why there is a discrepancy between the two sets of data. It could be for example, that an employer has incorrectly written the dates of employment in his or her report to the ATO. That enables the recipient to be able to correct that record and that be the end of the matter.”

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