Calls to prosecute heads of Australia’s illegal debt collection system

Sydney, Australia, Jul 7 (EFE).- An Australian government commission recommended Friday the civil and criminal prosecution of those responsible for an old debt recovery system created by the previous administration that illegally claimed millions of dollars from more than half a million people.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes, in charge of the Royal Commission that investigated the scheme known as Robodebt, delivered Governor General David Hurley her final report, which has 990 pages and contains 57 recommendations.

The document “recommends the referral of the (responsible) individuals for civil action or criminal prosecution. I recommend that this additional chapter remain sealed and not be filed with the rest of the report so as not to prejudice the pursuit of any civil action or criminal proceeding in the future,” Holmes said.

Robodebt, devised by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison when he was head of Social Services and implemented in 2016 – used algorithms to match tax information against welfare payments to calculate whether recipients had been overpaid.

Through the system, which made miscalculations, the Australian government sent automated letters to debtors giving minimal chances of interacting with an official to address the cases, which directly caused at least three suicides, the Commission report found.

“Robodebt was a crude and cruel mechanism, neither fair nor legal, and it made many people feel like criminals,” Holmes said.

“People were being traumatized by the possibility that they owed money. It was a costly failure of public administration, both in human and economic terms,” she added.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called the system a “human tragedy” but gave no details about the next steps in the investigation.

“Robodebt was a great betrayal and a human tragedy,” he said at a press conference Friday in Canberra.

He added that the system, which illegally collected some AUD1.76 million ($1.17 million) from about 526,000 Australians, “caused stress, anxiety, financial destitution and, sadly, had a very real human cost.”

He ordered an investigation eleven months ago to find out how Robodebt operated and various other aspects of the program, such as its legality, the economic impact for the government and debtors, after a series of complaints from those affected and the media.

The system stopped operating in May 2020, when it was deactivated by then-Prime Minister Morrison, who also apologized for the “distress” caused.

The Federal Court approved in 2021 an agreement signed by the government to pay AUD1.8 billion to more than 400,000 debtors in a class action lawsuit. EFE


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