Centrelink has sent text messages to welfare recipients warning them that an Australian Federal Police welfare fraud taskforce is operating in their area, The Guardian reports.
On Monday, the Opposition’s human services spokeswoman, Linda Burney, criticised Centrelink for “victimising and harassing vulnerable Australians” by sending welfare recipients letters carrying the Australian Federal Police logo and warning them that welfare fraud could result in prison and loss of payments.
On Tuesday, The Guardian was alerted to text messages warning welfare recipients that Taskforce Integrity was in their area and “focusing on welfare fraud”. Taskforce Integrity is a joint operation between the Department of Human Services and police which uses payment data to focus on regions where customers are at a higher risk of receiving the wrong payment or committing fraud.
The text messages and letters follow a Senate inquiry into Centrelink’s controversial automated debt recovery system known as “robodebt”.
The inquiry found the system was error-prone and needed to be redesigned after 217,403 letters were sent between July and December last year to welfare recipients, 36,305 of which did not result in a debt. The inquiry also called for communication with welfare recipients to be improved, with the letters described as intimidating and confusing.
Greens senator Rachel Siewert, who chaired the inquiry, said the text messages indicated Centrelink had not yet changed its approach.
“There are a whole lot of changes and processes that the Centrelink inquiry highlighted are desperately needed, and yet these texts are designed to intimidate people,” Senator Siewert said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services said Taskforce Integrity had identified $28.9 million of debt owed to the Commonwealth nationally, and had referred 57 matters to the Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecution.
She did not elaborate on how the taskforce identifies text recipients, only saying: “It targets geographic locations where a higher risk of non-compliance and welfare fraud has been identified”.
Dr Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australia Council of Social Service, described the debt collection campaign as operating with an “untenable level of harassment and intimidation”.