Human technology

‘Robodebt 2.0’: NSW government illegally took money from financially vulnerable people, report says | New South Wales Politics


A former Australian commissioner for human rights has called for a widespread audit of the use of automated software in debt collection after a scathing report found that the NSW government had illegally taken debt. money to financially vulnerable people for years.

Labeled ‘Robodebt 2.0’ by the state opposition, the NSW Ombudsman’s report found that the state’s debt collection agency illegally used automated technology to issue garnishment orders on the accounts of thousands of people over a three-year period starting in 2016.

The report, tabled in the New South Wales parliament, found that the bank accounts of some vulnerable people had been ’emptied’ by the program, which used automated technology to issue orders to recover unpaid fines.

“In a number of cases, the plaintiffs ended up with a zero balance on their account. Some of the plaintiffs were social assistance recipients, whose bank accounts held the funds they received from Centrelink as their sole source of income, ”the report says.

The use of automated technology has led to an explosion in the use of garnishment orders by the state government. In 2010, the agency responsible for the program, Revenue NSW, issued 6,905 orders. By 2019, it had grown to 1.6 million.

“As the number of garnishment orders issued increased, we continued to receive a large and growing volume of complaints regarding their administration and impact,” the report says.

But the scheme was illegal. Under the NSW Fines Act, the power to issue garnishment orders is discretionary, meaning that machine technology cannot be used “in a way that would interfere with or abandon this discretionary power ”.

The report, and its echoes of the Robodebt scandal, sparked calls for a widespread audit of how technology is used by government agencies.

Former Australian Human Rights Commission chief Edward Santow called the ombudsman’s findings “very concerning” and said the Revenue NSW program suggested a lack of fairness in decision-making .

In his former role, Santow led a landmark report of the Commission on the Use of Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights. Published in March of this year, the report asked, among other things, “An independent audit of all current or proposed uses of AI informed decision making by government”.

While the report focused on the federal government, Santow said the recommendation “would apply 100%” to state governments.

“What came out of our consultation is that the Australian public is actually very, very clear about what they want when governments use AI. They want it to be fair, precise and responsible, ”he said.

“Where the NSW Revenue program went wrong is all of these things. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t specific, and it wasn’t responsible.”

The ombudsman says he intends to do so. In a statement following the release of the report, NSW Ombudsman Paul Miller said the agency would seek to “comprehensively map the use of machine technology in decision-making processes administrative across the State ”.

“We are concerned that other agencies may also design and implement machine technologies without assessing all risks, without transparency and without obtaining appropriate legal advice,” Miller said.

The Ombudsman began investigating the regime in 2016.

“My office began to receive a wave of complaints from people, many of whom were financially vulnerable, who had discovered that their bank accounts had been stripped of their funds, and sometimes completely emptied,” Miller said.

In one case, a young pregnant woman in rural NSW saw her account frozen as the bank complied with a garnishment order.

The woman had two children and was left without access to funds, leaving her unable to pay rent or buy food.

Another woman receiving a disability pension had her account emptied following a garnishment order.

The woman had been a victim of a crime and had received a payment from Victim Services, but within two weeks of depositing the money into her account, the full amount was withdrawn to pay a fine.

After the Ombudsman raised concerns about the program, Revenue NSW made a number of changes to the way garnishment orders were made. He introduced a minimum protected amount clause that meant at least $ 523.10 would be left in an account being ordered, and he started using a formula that he said meant people vulnerable would not be targeted.

In 2019, it also introduced a level of human oversight. The so-called “traffic light” system required a human staff member to sign garnishment orders before they were issued.

But, as Miller said, Revenue NSW did not follow through on its recommendation to receive legal advice on the program. The ombudsman did, and the opinion revealed that even with these changes, the program may still be illegal because the so-called “human in the loop” did not perform a real discretionary function. Instead, they were just ticking off the tips provided by the algorithm.

“When you use discretion, you have to preserve judgment space and this type of harvest was just too rigid,” says Darren O’Donovan, senior lecturer in administrative law at La Trobe University.

“The use of public power must be justified and considered and a machine will never provide it. Even in the reformed system, the human decision maker must think carefully about what the “green lights” on a person’s file indicate and what they do not. “

The case drew comparisons with the Robodebt scandal, which saw the federal government illegally collect $ 1.5 billion in revenue from people who had accessed Centrelink.

Shadow NSW Labor Finance Minister Anoulack Chanthivong called the program “Robodebt 2.0”, calling the use of automated technology to issue garnishment orders “completely wrong and immoral”.

Sign up to receive the best stories from Guardian Australia every morning

“How many people have found themselves penniless and starving, with no way to support themselves or their families? It is shameful that our most vulnerable people – many of whom are already in serious financial distress – have been treated so appallingly, ”he said.

But the government rejected these comparisons, NSW Finance Minister Damien Tudehope saying “any suggestion that these processes look like ‘robo-debt’ is false.”

“Garnishment orders are a last resort – we encourage anyone who has been fined or has a debt to contact us and work with us to resolve it. Don’t put it in the drawer one more day, contact us now, ”he said.

“For those who have chosen to ignore our reviews and simply don’t want to pay, the community expects us to take action to recover what is owed to the people of NSW. A garnishment order is an option available to the Chief Commissioner to do just that.