ATO Change Program jilts Centrelink customers

Commonwealth Ombudsman ATO change program resulted in Family Tax Benefit (FTB) payments being suspended

Issues with the Australian Taxation Office’s (ATO) IT systems Change Program have resulted in a number of Centrelink customers having their Family Tax Benefit (FTB) payments suspended, the Commonwealth Ombudsman has reported.

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Detailing the issue its 2009-2010 annual report, the Ombudsman wrote that the upgrade had affected the ATO ’s ability to advise Centrelink that it had received tax returns.

“Also during this time, the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) implemented a policy which saw customers have their Family Tax Benefit (FTB ) suspended if they failed to lodge past year tax returns,” the report reads.

“The Ombudsman’s office subsequently received a number of complaints from Centrelink customers whose FTB payments had been suspended because Centrelink’s records indicated they had not lodged their tax returns.”

The issues with the ATO’s upgrade have been well publicised, with the agency acknowledging in August that delays in processing lodgements involving HECS-HELP and Centrelink claims had slowed the tax return process.

“If they’re lodged electronically, there’s various automated checks placed on them, so many returns go straight through the system, but there are some returns that will take more time,” ATO Second Commissioner, David Butler, said in the update. According the office, returns that required confirmation with other government departments could extend processing time by up to three days

In a detailed assessment of the ATO performance, the Omudsman noted that the agency’s Change Program had been partly responsible for a sizable increase in approach and complaints to 1,810, up some 27.3 per cent over the 2008-2009 year.

In the report the Ombudsman noted that delays in receipt of refunds, amended assessments and other interactions with the ATO had generated the most complaints from taxpayers and tax professionals.

“The ATO ’s Change Program for income tax release in January 2010 was a new source of complaints and accounted for about 12 per cent of the complaint issues recorded in 2009–10.” The report reads. “Most of these complaints concerned delays in lodgement and processing.

“These complaints showed that the Change Program had caused considerable inconvenience to taxpayers and, in some cases, caused consequences with other agencies, such as Centrelink and the Child Support Agency (CSA ).”

Detailing its recommendations on improving the ATO’s response to the issues caused by the Change Program, the Obudsman recommended the inclusion of clear messages to the community about any delays when they occur, not after the fact.

The agency also needed to ensure that the messages taxpayers received when they contact the ATO were consistent with public comments made by the ATO, and, ensuring all areas of the ATO and key external stakeholders were aware of problems and identified ‘workarounds’

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