Memo: Do not cancel debt-recovery

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FRONTLINE staff in Centrelink branches around the country have been sent a directive not to handle disputes over the government’s debt-collection scheme in person.

Instead they have been ordered to send all but the most vulnerable to online services, the ABC has reported.

The directive, which is available on Centrelink’s internal communications system, instructs frontline staff to “refer customers online to undertake the intervention” and “must not process acitivites in relation to the Online Compliance Intervention”.

The memo suggests officers can help vulnerable clients in certain circumstances and seems to contradict the Human Services Minister Alan Tudge’s claim that people could enter a Centrelink office and see someone “in 10 minutes”.

Mr Tudge later clarified his comment, saying people could use self-help terminals at Centrelink offices, and seek the help of frontline staff who will assess their enquiry and refer to the appropriate person.

The memo comes on the same day a frustrated customer provided screengrabs of his mobile phone call history to show how difficult it is to get through to Centrelink’s call centre.

Adelaide man Jeremy Di Sessa called the “families” number listed on the agency’s website a staggering 86 times over three days, and not once did anyone pick up.

The 33-year-old dad received a letter telling him his family tax benefits would be cut if he did not update his details within two weeks. But his repeated efforts to speak to a human between January 5 and 8 all failed.

He wasn’t put on hold, or offered a callback service. The line is supposed to be open Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm. When he visited a branch, he was told to use the phone or website, the latter of which he has been unable to do.

“This is how good Centrelink is,” Jeremy told news.com.au. “Every time I have called the line is busy. They are going cut my family benefit in half if I don’t update my details by 14 days of receiving our letter. How are we meant to do this when their phone lines are jammed?”

The complaint is not new. Nearly 29 million calls to Centrelink got a busy signal in the year to October, Senate Estimates heard, with another 7 million calls “abandoned” by customers unwilling to wait any longer.

The ABC’s 7.30 Report revealed the stress some Centrelink customers have faced, with more than 170,000 Australians having received a debt notice for overpayment. One woman, Emma Meldrum, claimed she had already paid an outstanding debt of $2800 for overpayment of her youth allowance, but was later re-assessed with a debt $11,000 by the department’s new robo-system for the same period.

“When I received a letter in November, it alleged I owed over $11,000 I literally grabbed the kitchen bench for support. I was sure it was typo, that I’d read it wrong, that my contact lens was fuzzy. I thought $11,000 could not possibly be right,” she said.

Ms Meldrum intends to fight the debt, but like many Australians with debts under the scheme, faces limited time and assistance to get her matter reviewed. She has applied for information under the Freedom of Information Act to see her youth allowance records held by Centrelink.

“I’m going to do everything I can to appeal it. If the debt is in my error, then I’ll own it. But until I’m told it’s definitely in my error I’m going to fight it.”