Between July and December 2014, an estimated one in 10 recipients of welfare from the Department of Human Services were overpaid. Most overpayments stem from recipients of benefits failing to complete a tax return, underestimating or failing to advise a change in circumstances.
Family Tax Benefit, Newstart Allowance and the single parenting payment accounted for most of the overpayments, with 350,000 families receiving too much Family Tax Benefit.
The figures came to light when Human Services managers faced a Senate estimates hearing in February, where answers were given to questions taken on notice. The department has detailed strategies to reduce overpayments in future, including monitoring Twitter and Facebook so it can be alerted when a student has left study, someone finds a job, or if a couple claiming to be separated announce they are together.
Debt collection agencies have benefited from chasing those who have been overpaid by the department but can’t or won’t pay back the money. Last year, $124.8 million was recovered by private debt collection agencies, with two such agencies, Dun and Bradstreet and Mercantile Credit, receiving $13 million in fees, according to National Welfare Rights Network. "The debt recovery bonanza follows a previous Audit Office investigation which found private debt collection agencies recovered 10 per cent of Centrelink debts, but were the subject of more than a quarter of all complaints about debt recovery practices," it said.
According to the Department of Human Services about 90 per cent of all debts are recovered. A planned replacement of the Centrelink payment system will, according to, Minister for Human Services, Marise Payne, reduce the amount of overpayments in the first place. "The new system will significantly improve the department's ability to share information in real time with other agencies, which will help to more quickly identify customers at risk of accumulating large debts and potentially fraudulent behaviour. Improved data sharing will also reduce the compliance burden on customers," she said.
Read more at TheAge.com.au
If the numbers are correct, it is staggering how many people have been overpaid by Human Services, perhaps as a result of thinking they could pull a fast one.
While a small percentage may have simply overlooked filling in a tax return, or had been meaning to get around to telling Centrelink about their new partner or additional income, let’s not forget this actually amounts to fraud. Times are tough for a lot of people; those working hard to bring in a wage, trying to manage an Age Pension alone, or those who can’t work because they have to look after a parent, or sick partner. However, there is no excuse for lying to simply get a few extra dollars.
And it’s not as if those trying to pull off the fraud are criminal masterminds. With Centrelink monitoring Facebook and Twitter, it’s only a matter of time before it twigs that the couple who claim to be separated only to announce their baby joy on social media perhaps aren’t being honest. In today’s instant, online world, nothing is private or secret for long, even from the government.
Of course everyone makes mistakes and people should be given the benefit of the doubt when it’s found that their earnings have been underestimated, or that their details haven’t properly been registered. But for those who deliberately give fraudulent information to receive more benefits, the penalties should be harsh.
Do you agree? Do you think that accepting an overpayment amounts to benefit fraud if not declared or paid back? Or should the onus be on the Department of Human Services to get it right in the first place?
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