Summary:MUSLIM women -- shunned by their families for leaving their husbands -- are accruing massive welfare debts because culturally insensitive Centrelink officers do not believe they are single.
The Welfare Rights Centre is receiving an increasing number of calls from Muslim women, especially in Sydney, who say Centrelink has accused them of concealing a partner in order to receive social security.
Many of these women have "shown great courage and resilience to separate from their partners, often in the face of family and community disapproval and isolation," the centre told The Australian.
The centre said many Centrelink decisions about whether someone is a "member of a couple" are backdated to create "super-sized" debts, some ranging from $100,000 to $200,000.
Minister for Human Services Kim Carr said he had asked his department to have further discussions with Centrelink staff on cultural issues after the issue was raised by the departmental multicultural advisory group and in light of decisions by the Social Security Appeals Tribunal.
"I have high regard for the work of commonwealth officers who have a challenging job applying the law to often very complex personal situations including relationship status," Senator Carr said. "Staff are trained to take cultural circumstances into account when reviewing payments.
"However, where people feel an incorrect decision has been made, they have a right to appeal. We want to ensure people are aware of and use all avenues of appeal."
National Welfare Rights Network president Maree O'Halloran said the Sydney centre group had successfully represented several such women.
"In some of these cases, our clients have experienced violence, but have felt unable to report this," she said.
"In other cases, powerful community prejudices against single mothers have led them to present as a couple or to feel unable to take the final steps of separation (such as a formal divorce) and this has later led Centrelink to make an incorrect judgment that they are concealing a relationship."
Centrelink admits that one of the most challenging areas to administer is "member-of-couple" relationships.
Over the past two years, Centrelink's compliance investigations have been shifting to a more intelligence-led model, where potential fraud cases are identified.
Welfare Rights is particularly concerned about the number of tip-offs on alleged member-of-couple breaches later found to be unfounded, without substance and possibly malicious in intent.
One in 10 tip-offs to the Centrelink fraud line are related to member-of-a-couple allegations.
Only 1840 of the 108,010 tip-offs in all cases were investigated and considered for prosecution. Figures for the second half of last year show 95.9 per cent of calls did not result in any change to payments and just 0.6 per cent of calls led to a payment being cancelled.
Senator Carr said the tip-off line was one part of much broader measures to help people keep payments accurate. It cost $2.4 million to administer and resulted in changes to payments of more than $64m.
Close to $1m over 18 months was spent on surveillance to check on 637 clients, but in almost a third of all cases no further action was warranted.