Centrelink chases thousands to repay debts

Senators have been told there is no time limit for people to contact Centrelink to get their refund.
Senators have been told there is no time limit for people to contact Centrelink to get their refund.

Centrelink is chasing almost 15,000 Australians who are owed money or will have their debts cancelled through the controversial welfare recovery scheme.

Services Australia officials confirmed to a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday $697.1 million had been paid back as of October 26.

That money has gone to 402,000 Australians, making up 94 per cent of the owed pool.

Services Australia originally said on Thursday that around 40,000 Australians were still owed money or would have their debts cancelled but later corrected the record to say the figure was about 14,600 people still being sought.

Some 3300 people able to get refunds have died.

Services Australia chief Rebecca Skinner said the agency had tried to contact the people multiple times through various methods.

She confirmed there was no time limit for them to get in touch in order to be refunded.

"If they contact us we will process their debt," Ms Skinner said.

Centrelink is restarting the welfare recovery scheme from Monday after it was paused due to the pandemic.

Income averaging is no longer used as the sole proof for a possible debt.

The "robodebt" automated welfare recovery scheme matched Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink data to claw back overpaid welfare payments.

It was ruled unlawful last year, with the Federal Court saying Centrelink could not have been satisfied the debt was correct.

The Morrison government announced in May it would repay all debts, estimated to cost about $721 million.

The scheme is facing a class action lawsuit.

The previous Labor government introduced a similar process in 2011 but had each case reviewed by a department staff member, while the coalition moved to a fully-automated system in 2016.

Australian Associated Press