Computer-controlled penalties and robo-debt come with a devastating human impact

Computer-controlled penalties and robo-debt come with a devastating human impact

Developments in technology should not come at the cost of our human rights, the Human Rights Law Centre has told the United Nations’ independent expert on poverty.

The Morrison Government’s increasing reliance on computers and algorithms to control the lives of struggling families seeking income support is putting costs savings first and people second.

Monique Hurley, a Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, said computer-automated penalties and Robo-debt are causing distress and risk driving struggling families deeper into poverty.

“Computers making decisions about peoples’ livelihoods can be the difference between a child having food or going hungry,” said Hurley.

“Single mothers with pre-school aged children have been left stranded and have had to turn to charities for food vouchers. The Robo-debt debacle has seen the government bully people into paying debts they do not owe, in an attempt prioritise efficiency over human rights,” Hurley added.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s submission focuses on the impact of an automated system of financial penalties forced on single parents caught up in ‘ParentsNext’ – a punitive government program targeting mothers with babies and toddlers.

“This is a government program that threatens to leave a struggling mother without money just because she hasn’t completed a task or reported it, and computers are taking human compassion out of the equation. A program that leaves even one child hungry or cold has no place in Australia,” said Hurley.

The program is aggravating the inequality that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents already experienced by leaving them more exposed to the risk of financial sanctions.

“Social security is a human right and should not depend on where you live, who you are or the colour of your skin. Digital technologies, while bringing some benefits, can seriously threaten human rights. For such technologies to do good, ending inequality must be central to their design,” said Hurley.

International evidence shows that while governments talk about greater efficiency and cost savings, they are overlooking the fact that relying on machines to make decisions can exacerbate existing inequality. This carries long term health and economic costs for families and communities.

“The stakes are high when it comes to social security. We should not lose sight of the need for human empathy in decision making, and computers simply cannot do that,” said Hurley.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s submission to the Special Rapporteur is available here.

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Michelle Bennett, Communications Director: 0419 100 519