VLA managing director Bevan Warner and executive director legal practice Katie Miller appeared before the Senate committee on Tuesday.
The organisation is among many vocal opponents of the data-matching initiative (“the initiative”), and called on the government to suspend it in January. VLA has also made online resources available for people facing Centrelink debt repayments under the initiative.
“In our view, the initiative is a disquieting and ill-advised legal and policy development,” VLA said in its submission to the inquiry.
It added that while it supports the use of technology to improve government efficiency, including in the management of funds, in this case the initiative undermines key tenets of proper and lawful government action.
“Critically, in its design and operation, the initiative has effectively shifted the burden of responsible administration of government funds from the Commonwealth to individuals,” VLA said.
“At the same time, in practice, key elements of the design and application of the initiative fundamentally impede Centrelink customers’ abilities to understand, question or challenge an automated debt.
“The cumulative impact will damage the overall integrity of the Centrelink system.”
VLA voiced its concern with the opacity of the data-matching process, as well as the lack of justification for many of the debts.
“Further, we consider that the disclosure by the department of otherwise protected social security information in response to public criticism is jarring and concerning, both in terms of its lawfulness and its purported justification,” VLA said.
The organisation made an extensive list of recommendations to the inquiry. The first was that the initiative be suspended.
VLA also recommended that the relevant legislation be amended to “expressly preclude debt recovery systems akin to the initiative”, and that there be an element of human oversight in any future debt recovery initiatives to mitigate the risk of inaccurate data-matching.
The submission expressed strong doubts about the lawfulness of the initiative.
“The initiative raises serious questions about how a debt raised on the basis of the current data-matching exercise alone (referred to within this submission as a ‘robo-debt’) can be responsibly and lawfully treated as ‘a debt to the Commonwealth’ under the Social Security Act 1991,” VLA said.
“VLA has significant concerns that where a ‘robo-debt’ has been raised, it may not be sufficiently certain or accurate to satisfy the requirements for raising a debt under the Social Security Act.
“This is because under the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act, a debt is only recoverable by Centrelink or the department if, among other things, it is ‘owed to the Commonwealth’ and ‘a person who obtains the benefit of the payment was not entitled for a reason to obtain that benefit’.”
VLA said the initiative is irresponsible and carries a high risk that many individuals will have to pay erroneous debts. It argued that the government has, without consultation or warning, shifted the responsibility for an essential function to vulnerable people and the courts and tribunals.
“Even if the initiative is lawful, in our view, it should not be,” VLA said.