The federal government will no longer use external debt collectors to chase social security debts and says it hopes the move will “ensure robo-debt never happens again”.
Social services and National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) minister Bill Shorten says the move will help to protect very vulnerable Australians.
“We have to look at the reality of who is affected – it’s often very vulnerable Australians, people who have gotten on government payments in the first place because they are at a vulnerable time in their lives,” he says.
“We have to stop giving their information to private companies and ensure the debt recovery process is lawful, fair and transparent.”
Mr Shorten says Services Australia will not renew its contract with external agencies ARL Collect Pty Ltd, Milton Graham/Recoveries Corporation Pty Ltd and Probe Operations Pty Ltd when they expire on 30 June.
After that date, all welfare-based debt collection will be handled in-house. Mr Shorten says raising debts on welfare recipients needs to be lawful, customer focused and handled with care and respect.
He also noted a change in how the government will approach welfare debts overall compared to predecessors.
“The power to raise lawful debts against citizens needs to be exercised judiciously and at every stage afford citizens the right of reply and not reverse the onus of proof from the government to the individual,” Mr Shorten says.
“Government should never start from the position that the existence of an alleged debt means the citizen is guilty until proven innocent.”
The announcement comes after tech website iTnews reported that Services Australia was using telecommunications metadata and password-cracking software to check on welfare recipients who were claiming payments for singles when there was reason to believe they were in a relationship.
A Services Australia spokesperson denied the claims, telling Gizmodo Australia in a statement that “telecommunications metadata is only used to support potential criminal cases” and that all debt collection initiated by the new government was lawful.
“It is not used in our compliance activities, which aim to prevent avoidable debt as a result of customers being overpaid due to changes of their circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
“We conduct our fraud investigations in accordance with commonwealth law, with briefs of evidence prepared for consideration by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions where there is sufficient evidence of an offence.”
Have you ever received an automated debt notice from the government? How did you handle that? Let us know in the comments section below.