Services Australia is about to make a major change in how it deals with Aussies who have a Centrelink debt.
Minister for Government Services Bill Shorten said outsourcing welfare payment debts would cease from June 30.
The move will mean that those with Centrelink debts will no longer be chased by independent debt collectors and, instead, will be handled in-house by Services Australia.
Shorten said the process of raising debts needed to be lawful, customer focused and handled with care and respect.
“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,” Shorten said.
“We have to stop giving their information to private companies and ensure the debt-recovery process is lawful, fair and transparent.
“The Royal Commission into [the] Robodebt [Scheme] has put on full display the unfettered cruelty with which debt-collection agencies were unleashed against vulnerable Australians. We cannot let this happen again.”
Shorten said the government was putting a major focus on ensuring Australians were not taken advantage of, while also ensuring those attempting to rort the system were held accountable.
“We are not naïve to the fact that, wherever there is government money, there will be some opportunistic behaviour - but Services Australia is already fully capable of recovering debts and has multiple tools at hand,” he said.
“However, 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.
“Government should never start from the position that the existence of an alleged debt means the citizen is guilty until proven innocent.”
Shorten said that, from June 30, Services Australia collection agents would contact those with outstanding debts and assist them in the transition process.
“Flexible repayment options, short-term counselling, information and referrals to support systems may be provided,” he said.
While some Aussies have complained about excessive wait times for access to welfare services, Shorten told Yahoo Finance Services Australia was well-equipped to deal with the increased workload.
“The expense previously attributed to the use of these debt collectors will be diverted to Services Australia in-house capacity. So, we believe that'll cover the cost of additional agency staff for debt-recovery activities,” he said.