Q&A: Your rights when Centrelink gets it wrong

The IEU sits down with the Welfare Rights Centre’s Executive Director, Katherine Boyle, to talk about the economic impact of COVID-19 on those least able to afford it.

We’ve had a strong relationship with Welfare Rights Centre for many years now.

Yes, we’ve been working with the IEU since the 1980s to support members encountering issues with Centrelink payments. Our lawyers are specialists in social security law, and they provide free legal advice and support whenever a member is having trouble getting a Centrelink payment or they’ve received a Centrelink decision they think is unfair or they would like to question. This includes decisions about payments such as JobSeeker, the Parenting Payment and Family Tax Benefit, and it often involves someone having a debt raised against them.

The pandemic has really shaken things up. What kinds of issues are you seeing?

We’ve had a surge in casework as enormous numbers of people claim Centrelink payments and encounter problems for the first time – or for the first time in a long time. Consequently, a lot of recent issues are related to difficulties navigating Centrelink’s systems. I’d really encourage members who have lost employment or have a partner or family member who has lost employment to get in touch if they’re experiencing difficulty regarding Centrelink payments. Remember, we’re happy to help on any Centrelink issue – new or old.

Any good outcomes?

Yes, the economic impact of COVID-19 has clearly put pressure on Centrelink and we’re seeing a lot of people in distress, but there are wins as well. We recently had one for a client who’d been surviving on a very low rate of the Age Pension for more than a year. Her pension had been reduced because she’d received a payment from a trust after her husband passed away. Her pension should have reverted to the full rate after a set period but hadn’t. She was clearly distressed and experiencing genuine financial hardship but despite many phone calls to Centrelink her pension rate hadn’t changed. We contacted Centrelink on her behalf and within three days her pension was increased to the full rate, and she received arrears of $15,000.

Is there an issue that stands out?

I’d like to remind people about their income reporting requirements and to stress that reporting for social security payments such as JobSeeker is completely separate to the Family Tax Benefit. You must report your income to two different sections of Centrelink, which means you must report your income twice. We see some enormous and truly terrible debts because of these dual reporting requirements so if you receive more than one payment through Centrelink, please check your income details for all payments are up-to-date. (Find out more in Katherine Boyle’s interview, ABC’s 7:30: Family fighting Centrelink over $26,000 debt, Thursday 3 September 2020, available on iView.)

What should we know moving forward?

The end of the debt freeze, currently scheduled for 30 October, is likely to result in a massive increase in debt notices. Letters will go out to people Centrelink thinks it has overpaid. Many will have no idea there’s a problem and don’t know what’s coming.

What message would you give to our members?

If an issue with Centrelink doesn’t seem right or fair, give us a call. When people get correspondence from Centrelink they tend to think “there’s nothing I can do” even if they think it’s unfair. Yet we constantly have successes in our casework, partly because Centrelink does make errors but also because the system is extremely complicated and sometimes subjective. Often when we seek a review of a decision, the decision is often changed and the issue is sorted.