Australia to conduct wide-ranging investigation into automated debt collection system

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks during a joint news conference with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern following a meeting at the Commonwealth Parliamentary offices in Sydney, Australia, June 10, 2022. REUTERS/ Loren Elliott

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SYDNEY, Aug 25 (Reuters) – Australia’s Labor government said on Thursday it would conduct a wide-ranging investigation into an automated debt collection system set up by the former Conservative coalition which incorrectly calculated that thousands of recipients of welfare owed money to the government.

The Robodebt program, which was in place between July 2015 and November 2019, was introduced to ensure that welfare recipients did not under-report their income and receive too many government payments. He used computer algorithms to recover money with little or no human oversight.

“We know that almost 400,000 Australians have fallen victim to this cruel system. A human tragedy with very real consequences for its victims,” ​​Prime Minister Anthony Albanese told a televised press briefing.

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The Royal Commission, the most powerful type of government inquiry, will verify the requirement for such a regime, who held responsibility for it, the financial costs to government and consider measures to prevent similar events from happening again. The final report will be delivered by April 18, 2023.

Catherine Holmes, former Chief Justice of the State of Queensland Supreme Court, has been appointed Commissioner and will have the power to compel witnesses and recommend criminal charges.

“Robodebt was a shameful chapter in the history of public administration in this country. It was a massive failure of politics and law,” said Government Services Minister Bill Shorten.

About A$1.76 billion ($1.2 billion) was “illegally raised” from 433,000 Australians because of the scheme, Shorten said. Last year, a federal court approved an A$1.8 billion settlement after the Liberal-National coalition agreed in late 2020 to settle a class action lawsuit brought by victims.

Then Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologized to Parliament for the distress, but admitted no legal responsibility. Labour, who returned to power after a federal election in May, promised the inquiry during the campaign.

($1 = 1.4476 Australian dollars)

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Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa

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