Robo-debt scrutinised by UN over human rights breaches

Centrelink's controversial robo-debt program is under international scrutiny for potential breaches of human rights.

In a submission to the UN's independent expert on poverty, the Human Rights Law Centre has warned the use of automated penalties risks sending families deeper into poverty.

"Computers making decisions about peoples' livelihoods can be the difference between a child having food or going hungry," lawyer Monique Hurley says.

"Single mothers with pre-school aged children have been left stranded and have had to turn to charities for food vouchers.

"The robo-debt debacle has seen the government bully people into paying debts they do not owe, in an attempt to prioritise efficiency over human rights."

The HRLC says the human rights impact of technological developments must be prioritised ahead of efficiency and cost gains.

The submission will be used in a report to be presented in October to the UN General Assembly on the human rights impacts of digital technologies in social security systems.

The robo-debt system is a computer program that gathers data from government agencies to see if there are discrepancies with what people have reported to Centrelink.

A third of the appeals to a federal tribunal over the scheme have resulted in debts being set aside, with thousands of welfare recipients who don't owe money sent automated recovery notices.

Before the system was automated 20,000 notices were sent each year, whereas now 20,000 are sent in a week, the HRLC says.

"For such technologies to do good, ending inequality must be central to their design," Ms Hurley said.

The robo-debt program is currently facing two legal challenges, with a Victorian nurse taking Centrelink to court for its claim she owed $2754 for Austudy she was paid while studying a diploma in 2012.

The HRLC's submission to the UN also focuses on the coalition's ParentsNext program, which forces parents to complete training to get their welfare payments.

Ms Hurley says the automation takes human compassion out of social security.

"This is a government program that threatens to leave a struggling mother without money just because she hasn't completed a task or reported it," she said.

"A program that leaves even one child hungry or cold has no place in Australia."

Indigenous parents are more exposed to financial sanctions, which is driving the wedge of inequality, Ms Hurley added.

Affected groups should be part of the design, implementation and evaluation of social security technologies, the legal centre says.

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