No evidence to show Robodebt caused more than 2,000 deaths

No evidence to show Robodebt caused more than 2,000 deaths

What was claimed

The verdict

The Robodebt scheme caused the deaths of more than 2,000 people.

False. While data from Services Australia shows that, between July 2016 and October 2018, 2,030 people who had received a Robodebt-related letter subsequently died, there is no recorded evidence that the deaths were caused by the scheme.

Three red and white reports titled Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme. Social media users have claimed Robodebt caused more than 2,000 deaths. (Credit: ABC News, Toby Hunt).

By Ellen McCutchan

In the wake of the release of the Robodebt royal commission's final report last month, claims about the devastating impact of the program have resurfaced online.

A slew of posts across social media are saying the scheme caused or resulted in more than 2,000 deaths, with many citing the figure of 2,030.

Robodebt, which began as a pilot program in 2015 and was officially shut down in May 2020 after being found to be unlawful, was an automated debt assessment and recovery scheme. It was developed by the Department of Human Services (now a government agency called Services Australia) as part of its Centrelink payment compliance program.

As the findings of the royal commission made clear, the Robodebt scheme doubtless caused significant harm and has been blamed for some deaths including suicides. However there is no evidence or data collected to show the cause of death of those who died after being contacted by Robodebt.

The figure of 2,030 deaths originates from data first made public in 2018, when then-Greens senator Rachel Siewart asked the Department of Human Services (now Services Australia) for an update on the number of people who had died after receiving letters related to Robodebt.

According to the department's answer to the senator's Question on Notice, a total of 2,030 people had died after receiving an "Employment Income Confirmation" letter between July 2016 and October 2018.

These letters, different to a debt notice, informed welfare recipients of a difference between the income they had reported to Centrelink and the income included in their tax records. Letter recipients were required to act within 28 days to either confirm or update their income levels with the department. A total of 925,000 of these letters were sent out. 

Of those who died, 663 people were classified as "vulnerable", which includes people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence and mental health issues.

The data also showed that, of the people who had gone on to receive an "accounts payable" (debt) notice, 812 had subsequently died.

The agency did not record the cause of death for those people who had died after receiving a Robodebt notice, a spokesperson for Services Australia told RMIT FactLab. 

"The information provided to the Senate is regularly misrepresented as suicides," the spokesperson said, adding that the figures remained the most up-to-date available.

"We recommend a careful reading of the full response to the Senate for context as to what the number represents."

Separately, during Senate Estimates in 2020, the then-deputy chief executive officer of Services Australia's Income Compliance Taskforce, Annette Musolino, explained that the deaths could not all be classified as suicides, nor linked directly to Robodebt.

"The statistic that was mentioned in the previous questions was just about customers who had passed away at any time over the period and who had ever received any kind of notice out of the program — so, certainly no causation and certainly no linkage to suicide," she told the Community Affairs References committee.

Jane Pirkis, the director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, said that while she didn't doubt Robodebt had led to some suicides, the figure shared online seemed "very high".

Pointing to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on causes of death, Professor Pirkis estimated there were "about 6,500 suicides" in Australia over the period covered by Service Australia's data.

"It is unlikely that [2,030] of them — around one-third — would have been caused by Robodebt," she said, adding that she was not aware of any statistical analysis looking at suicides caused by the scheme.

Importantly, as Professor Pirkis noted, this did not mean Robodebt notices played no role in any deaths.

Indeed, two mothers gave testimony to the royal commission about the role of Robodebt in their sons' suicides, with the final report noting that the commission was "aware of another tragic death which appears to have resulted from a discrepancy letter issued under the Scheme in 2017".

Noting that Services Australia was unable to provide figures for the number of suicides which may have resulted from the scheme, the report adds: "To be fair, it is difficult to see how such information could be reliably gathered.

"In any case, it does little for the families of those who have died to speak of their loss in terms of numbers. What is certain is that the Scheme was responsible for heartbreak and harm to family members of those who took their own lives because of the despair the Scheme caused them."

Then-senator Siewart, meanwhile, told The Saturday Paper in 2020 that "there are at least five families that believe a debt notice contributed to their loved one taking their own life".

"I'm relaying what I'm reliably told. There are people who contact us directly, and you can glean from what they're saying that they're very distressed. We've had parents contact us to say, 'My son or daughter has had this notice and it's really affecting them'."


The verdict

False. As the findings of the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme made clear, the scheme doubtless caused significant harm and has been blamed for some suicides. The royal commission heard testimony from families who believed the scheme had played a role in two deaths. The commission later stated it was "confident that these were not the only tragedies of [this] kind". While data from Services Australia shows that, between July 2016 and October 2018, more than 2,000 people who had received a Robodebt-related letter subsequently died, there is no recorded evidence or data to link the cause of all those deaths directly to the scheme.


07 August 2023


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