26 May, 2024
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Government warned about legal problems two years before robodebt


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The government was warned about potential legal problems two years before the devastating robodebt scheme started, a royal commission has heard.

The first day of public hearings was held on Monday, with evidence presented about the origins of the program which recovered more than $750 million from nearly 400,000 people.

Counsel assisting Justin Greggery KC told the inquiry legal advice flagged concerns as early as 2014 about the program which ran from 2016 to 2019.

The issues raised included questions over how incomes would be calculated for the scheme, but the government opted to continue with the program’s rollout.

In December 2014, the social services department received advice that “the proposal to smooth a debt amount over an annual or other defined period may not be consistent with the legislative framework”, he said.

In his opening statement, Mr Greggery said authoritative legal advice was not sought from the solicitor-general.

Instead, the departments responsible for overseeing the scheme sought internal legal advice.

“That advice raised significant questions about the legality of the scheme,” Mr Greggery said.

He also flagged there was a “significant volume” of material outstanding from the Commonwealth required by the commission.

The royal commission will seek to find out whether the Commonwealth government was “recklessly indifferent” to the legality of the robodebt scheme.

The first block of public hearings began in Brisbane, with Mr Greggery outlining questions the commission will seek to answer.

This will include examining the development of the scheme, its legality, and how departmental checks and balances went so wrong.

The scheme began in 2015 under the Liberal-National coalition and falsely accused welfare recipients of owing the government money.

Debt notices were issued by a process called income averaging, which compared people’s reported income with tax office figures.

The system’s calculations often had Centrelink’s in-house software seize huge sums from bank accounts without welfare recipients realising what was coming.

Over the coming weeks it is expected that the royal commission will hear submissions from members of the public who were caught up in the robodebt scheme.

-with AAP

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