Centrelink recipients caught in another bureaucratic bungle
SOME Centrelink recipients are having to prove their identity to the government agency over and over again.
The requirement has prompted complaints of overreaching and putting unfair cost pressures on people who rely on welfare.
Fraser Coast man Ian Mellor emigrated from England as a four-year-old in 1974.
He's been an Australian citizen since he was 14 after his mother Carol added him to her Certificate of Australian Citizenship in 1985.
He's also had a tax file number, a licence and used to work for the government in disability services.
So when Centrelink asked him for proof of his identity on the one application for the third time, he was perplexed.
Others who have lived their lives as Australians despite being born overseas, have lit up social media with similar experiences.
Mr Mellor has been the recipient of benefits several times in his life including the Newstart Allowance and the Sickness Allowance.
"Over the years I've been off and on it," he said.
He said he applied to receive the Sickness Allowance from Centrelink in November 2016.
Mr Mellor was approved, using documents he had used before, and began to receive payments in mid-December.
In early January, Centrelink sent him a text message stating they required further proof of identity. So he gave them the same certificate he has used before.
The problem was the citizenship certificate he supplied was not the original. It was a certified copy of the one held by his mother hundreds of kilometres away in New South Wales.
Under identity protocols tightened in 2015, certified copies aren't enough.
So to prove his identity the third time, Mr Mellor had to arrange for the original certificate to be sent to him via registered mail.
"I've been told, 'you won't have to do this again'," he said.
"Each time you do this, it costs money to get the proof.
"When you're on benefits, every cent counts."
What's the problem?
To receive Centrelink, applicants must provide one original document proving their birth in Australia, their citizenship or their visa.
The department that oversees Centrelink says the issue experienced by people like Mr Mellor stems from a change in process in 2015 that tightened proof of identity requirements.
Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen said in most cases, people only needed to confirm their identity once to access payments and services.
"In 2015, the department implemented a strict identity management process aligned to the Federal Government's National Identity Proofing Guidelines," he said.
"This provides the department with confidence that the identity documentation provided to support a person's claim is genuine."
"However, if a customer has not received payment for some time, they may be asked to provide documentation again as the department now has a more rigorous identity management process in place."
"Once a person's identity has been confirmed through this process, they do not need to provide this documentation again."
How widespread is it?
Centrelink recipients are regularly reporting issues linked to their identity documents using platforms like social media.
When Mr Mellor shared his story to a Facebook group for people who came from England as children, more than a dozen people responded.
Many of them arrived in places like Wollongong, where Mr Mellor and his family landed and stayed in hostels during their first years in the country.
Many of them were put on their parent's citizenship certificates rather than getting their own.
At least two people said the exact same thing that happened to Mr Mellor also happened to them.
Others who commented on the post said they didn't need to provide proof of citizenship at all to access benefits.
On Twitter, Centrelink spends much of its responding to people complaining about problems like this one.
Most of the recent complaints relate to its high-profile error-ridden debt recovery system that falsely determined thousands of people were overpaid benefits.
Another large percentage of complaints concern being able to get in touch with Centrelink at all.
Earlier this week ABC 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales complained of having to wait two hours on hold to Centrelink's hotline.
Dozens of people have also made the same complaint on the Department of Human Service's Facebook page.
Their wait times often stretched to hours, with many people complaining of phone calls cutting out or getting a busy signal when trying to call.
In the space of 24 hours from Thursday 11am to Friday 11am, an estimated 25 people posted to the DHS Facebook page complaining about long wait times, busy tones, waits on payments and other bungles regarding paperwork and processing.
Ringing on behalf of somebody with a disability who can't do it themselves. Have given up trying by phone, will visit an office. https://t.co/RhPyUvVvvm— Leigh Sales (@leighsales) February 9, 2017
A fraction of complaints pouring in on Facebook and Twitter relate to situations like Mr Mellor's, where people are told they need to prove their identity when they have already proved it in the past.
On November 10, 2016, a Twitter user repeatedly tweeted at Centrelink expressing suicidal thoughts over the cost of getting the right identity paperwork.
"So Depressed...time to check out of life soon. no money, no prospects, no life, nothing," the user said.
They first tweeted at Centrelink with the words "id for newstart. Birth certificate - $70 Drivers license (sic) $50. Have no money. Create hardship 4 hardship payments".
They continued, saying they couldn't get their licence renewed due to unpaid fines and only had a photocopy of their birth certificate.
They also claimed to have been on the dole many times before.
Centrelink social media staff tweeted back offering help and urging the user to phone their service.
They also encouraged the user to ask to speak to a social worker or phone Lifeline.
News Regional Media has attempted to contact the user.
Other Twitter users have complained of having to provide birth certificates multiple times, including this case in February 2016:
Having this Kafka-esque situation where I have to prove my identity to @Centrelink in person (twice) only they don't update their system.— Phoebe Montague (@ladymelbourne) February 19, 2016
Mr Jongen said people who found it difficult to get the right identity documents could contact them.
"People can contact us if they are having difficulty obtaining or providing proof of identity documents, and the department can make alternative arrangements to confirm their details and satisfy identity requirements," he said.
"The department assesses income support claims in accordance with clear criteria set down in legislation. We do not have discretion to grant claims outside these rules.
"Under the legislation, people have to meet residence requirements and provide evidence in order to receive payments. These requirements are clearly stated on our website and in claim forms, and our staff are happy to explain these requirements to customers."