The mother of an intellectually disabled man who initially received a $15,000 “robodebt” has described the Department of Human Services’ conduct in seeking to recover the debt as a form of “disability bullying”.
- Christopher Pascoe, who has an intellectual disability, received a $15,000 robodebt from Centrelink
- Centrelink later said it had made an error and reduced Mr Pascoe’s debt by $5,000
- Centrelink is now offering to waive the remainder of the debt
In July 2018, Christopher Pascoe, a 53-year-old man with epilepsy and an intellectual disability, received a debt of $15,537.62 from Centrelink.
The department alleged there was a mismatch between the income he declared to the department dating from 2013 to 2016, compared to what he actually earned.
Mr Pascoe does not declare his income to Centrelink, which is a common arrangement for people who have a disability that limits their ability to handle their own finances.
“The unfairness is the fact that Christopher knew nothing about it,” his mother, Yvonne Pascoe, told 7.30.
“The facts were just presented to us actually, about 18 months ago, as you know, this is a complete deal.”
She believes Centrelink has not calculated her son’s debt correctly.
“It’s really sort of disability bullying to me, because it’s just gone on,” she said.
Centrelink later admitted it had made mistakes in calculating the initial debt against Mr Pascoe. In a further letter dated February 2019, it wiped $5,000 off the debt because of an “administrative error” it had made.
Shortly after 7.30 approached the Department of Human Services about Mr Pascoe’s debt, Ms Pascoe received a letter from a Centrelink legal officer offering to waive the remainder of his debt.
The family has not yet accepted the offer.
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‘It’s an immoral raising of a debt’
Terry Carney, a former member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, says he was able to waive Centrelink debts in some cases. (ABC News)
Automated Centrelink debts, also known as robodebts, have been criticised by legal groups because they require welfare recipients to prove they do not owe any money.
The robodebt scheme matches income data from the Australian Tax Office with income reported to Centrelink by welfare recipients.
If a discrepancy is detected, people are usually sent a letter asking for further information such as payslips and bank statements, sometimes from years earlier.
Mr Pascoe’s case raises further concerns about how automated debts are raised against vulnerable Australians, and how and when the Department of Human Services chooses to enforce them. 7.30 previously reported on the case of a deceased disability pensioner who had a $6,000 debt raised against him.
“When somebody with an intellectual incapacity is dealing with Centrelink, they’re usually not in a position at all to understand when it is that they have to report things, or precisely what it is that they have to tell Centrelink about,” Sydney University emeritus professor Terry Carney told 7.30.
Mr Carney was previously a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) which hears reviews of Centrelink debts. He said he had decided some cases like Mr Pascoe’s and chose to exercise his discretion to waive the debt.
“It’s an immoral raising of a debt against somebody, that they don’t actually owe to the Government,” he said.
“It’s a kind of tax on people on social security.”
Challenging the debt
Mr Pascoe and a number of Australians are now seeking to challenge their debts at the AAT.
A tribunal member ruled in Mr Pascoe’s case his circumstances were “not sufficiently special” to warrant a waiver of his alleged debt.
A number of AAT cases are now on appeal to the “second tier” of the tribunal, where hearings are more formal but also public, unlike at the first stage of review.
Ms Pascoe has lodged a review request for this body to now examine her son’s case.
“I’m concerned for his future. That’s really my biggest concern now,” she said.
“What will happen when we’re no longer here?”
‘You don’t know how accurate it is’
Vida Carden-Coyne received a $6,000 robodebt that was later reduced to $1,355. (ABC News: Jerry Rickard)
Vida Carden-Coyne received a parenting payment from Centrelink in 2014. She too is now moving to challenge her debt in the second tier of the AAT.
“My partner and I had split up. We were both going through quite a lot financially. We didn’t expect to be in the situation that we’re in,” she said.
“And then to be told that you’ve done something wrong, [and it’s] implied that it’s deliberate is really quite traumatic.”
Centrelink initially raised a debt of $6,000 against Ms Carden-Coyne. It later reduced the payment to $1,600 before arriving at a figure of $1,355.85.
“That amount has changed three times in the last year. So that’s the other thing,” Ms Carden-Coyne said.
“You don’t know how accurate it is.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services told 7.30 it was unable to comment on matters currently before the AAT.
“The Minister for Government Services has extensively covered this subject in previous interviews, answers to questions in Parliament and his doorstop in recent weeks,” the spokesman said.
“In regards to the two cases you have raised, we will not be providing a response through the media. However, we encourage people to contact the department directly to discuss any concerns.”
Watch this story tonight on 7.30.