UN report scolds digital welfare systems

The UN has criticised Australia's robo-debt and cashless welfare card systems.
The UN has criticised Australia's robo-debt and cashless welfare card systems.

A United Nations human rights expert has questioned the legality of Australia's controversial Centrelink robo-debt scheme and the country's use of cashless welfare cards.

A UN report on poverty and human rights has taken aim at welfare systems in several countries, including Australia.

Special rapporteur Phil Alston, who is an Australian, said digital technologies in welfare systems are being increasingly used to punish individuals.

"As humankind moves, perhaps inexorably, towards the digital welfare future, it needs to alter course significantly and rapidly to avoid stumbling zombie-like into a digital welfare dystopia," Mr Alston said on Friday.

He argued a lack of a legal basis for Australia's automated welfare debt-recovery system showed a lack of attention from the Morrison government.

Evidence provided to the special rapporteur showed very high error rates in the robo-debt scheme.

Describing the Australian scheme as a fiasco, Mr Alston said automated calculation systems had been open to error or failure around the world.

He argued the lack of a legal basis also meant less political transparency and public confidence in the system.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert stood by the systems.

"We note Mr Alston's comments this morning on ABC Radio National Breakfast that he hadn't done any official investigation into the situation in Australia and could appreciate wanting to relate his report to Australia, but the report is really directed elsewhere," Mr Robert said.

He referred to an inquiry submission by Services Australia which highlighted the importance of "maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the welfare system".

"We do this by undertaking a range of measures to address fraud, non-compliance and debt," the submission said, noting $2 billion in overpayments had been identified since mid-2015.

On cashless welfare cards, Mr Alston said the private tech companies behind their design were operating in a "human rights-free zone", with a lack of government regulation and resistance to considering human rights.

He also argued the cards were allowing the private sector to play a lead role in the public welfare system, which led to a "lack of transparency".

Mr Alston has taken issue with a "digital dashboard" used by Australian welfare recipients to report mandatory activities and check compliance with their obligations.

He said the lack of human interaction with an automated system "fails to take real-life situations into account".

Sweden has been forced to reverse its complex digital welfare network, because 15 per cent of the automated decisions being made were incorrect.

The UN report said software used by Australian welfare agencies had led to $CAD140 million ($AU156 million) worth of errors in Canada.

Australian Associated Press