What Centrelink can do
And what it can’t
Recent reports on Centrelink surveillance of clients have rung alarm bells. It’s easy, as a recipient of government benefits, to feel powerless in the face of a large bureaucracy. You are not powerless. In fact, as the recent enquiry into Robo-debt revealed, ultimately Centrelink clients have rights and can exercise them. Today we explain the detail of what Centrelink can do – and what it cannot.
First up, let’s recap what has just been reported.
On 4 April, iTnews publication broke the story (gathered under freedom of information laws) that Services Australia had used password ‘crackers’ and metadata to check Centrelink users’ relationship status. It seems this was in order to determine if welfare recipients who claimed to be single were actually in a couple relationship.
Why does this matter, you may wonder?
As we discussed two weeks ago, your definition as a single or one half of a couple means you get a different payment. Two singles will receive more than a couple payment (combined). But it is against the law to falsely claim single status.
It seems that the Centrelink’s use of phone passwords to scrutinise messages to determine relationship status was directed toward those clients it believed to be making fraudulent claims, thus triggering a criminal investigation. Previously Services Australia was able to ask telcos for metadata. The right to do this was taken away in 2015 and has not been reinstated. Services Australia must now go to the Australian Federal Police for its data checking activities. There has been no suggestion that this use of password crackers and metadata has been employed in the case of Age Pensioners. But we also cannot definitively rule that out.
When questioned, Services Australia did not define when a ‘non-compliant’ claim became a fraudulent one, thus allowing the agency to seek help from the Australian Federal Police. It is therefore unclear how many people have been affected by this exercise.
Separately, at the weekend, Minister for Government Services, Bill Shorten, stated that debt collection agencies will no longer be used by Services Australia, as an early response to the findings of the Robo-debt Royal Commission.
We asked the Head of our Customer Service Team, the unflappable Steven Sadler, to share the main concerns that Retirement Essentials members have about what Centrelink might and might not do.
He nominated the following five assumptions about Centrelink and we have provided some detail on each one so you can understand what can legally occur.
Customers often assume that Centrelink:
- Accesses copies of their Australian Tax Office (ATO) records directly from the ATO
- Monitors their bank accounts in real time
- Knows all customers income and assets detail associated with private companies, trusts and SMSFs
- Delays applications in order to discourage applicants from persevering
- Can access your super fund balances
What really happens?
Your tax records
Centrelink does not access your records. It may request a copy of your Tax Return or Notice of Assessment from you in order to process a claim or application. What it also can do is match data with the ATO so that if you understate assets to Centrelink, which then don’t match the information you have provided to the ATO, then this is likely to be discovered and a ‘please explain’ sent to you. Centrelink will only do this if you have lodged a claim for them to assess.
As mentioned previously, it is typically only in cases of suspected fraud that more detailed information will be sought, although Centrelink does from time to time randomly select people to provide additional information. Ordinarily your bank account information will only be available to Centrelink during the above-mentioned data matching process with ATO records. So a variance between your stated bank balance and your earned interest in your tax return is likely to be picked up. This is very different to accessing your bank account balance in real time.
Further income and asset detail
Again, because people assume that Centrelink receives copies of Tax Returns or Notices of Assessment, they think all their income and asset information has been provided. This assumption is common in the case of those who are self-employed, have an SMSF or a private company or trust, as they have submitted such information to the ATO. It has not been automatically passed across to Centrelink. Data matching with the ATO, again, may highlight any discrepancies.
‘Go-slows’ on applications
The process of checking information for an Age Pension or concession card can be very complicated. There is identity verification, residency status, earnings, assets and other aspects which all need to be checked and verified. Assuming this will take just a week or two – that the ‘machines’ will crunch the numbers – is wrong. Often applications need to be escalated as the detail is too complex for the frontline staff or call centre personnel. As with many things in life, this process is neither as quick nor as easy as it seems.
Super fund information
Super funds and life insurance companies are required to provide update information to Centrelink twice a year (usually at indexation time in March and September). This enables Centrelink to more accurately ‘deem’ earnings on balances and to understand when amounts are in decumulation, i.e. being drawn down in an income stream. Often super funds will need to provide a Centrelink schedule for applicants to share or funds can provide directly to the agency.
The fine print at Services Australia
The main sources information provided to Services Australia comes from:
- the Australian Taxation Office (ATO)
- the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR)
- other sources to match income information reported by people who get a payment.
Here are some handy links to more information from Services Australia:
What about you?
Do you have any other concerns about the provision of information?
You might want to book one of our Entitlements Consultations. They are only $75 for a 30 minute consultation. Let us know what you need help with …
Don’t forget you can always check the Retirement Essentials Age Pension Eligibility Calculator for quick answers to hard questions. It’s free and 100% private.