Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 14 November 1985
Page: 2133

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(10.55) —When consideration of these Estimates was adjourned, I think it was the day before yesterday, Senator Peter Baume was asking questions about the attitude of the Department of Social Security to overpayments and fraud. He made the very valid point that there was a considerable difference between the situation whereby someone was overpaid because of departmental error or failure of administration and fraud. He was concerned that the departmental officers' attitude to overpayments, and particularly to overpayments due to fraud, was cavalier. I think that was being a bit harsh, although he may have been describing what he perceived as the attitude of the officers who were present at the Committee.

Senator Peter Baume —That was all it was, yes.

Senator GRIMES —Yes. The Department takes a very serious view of overpayments and particularly of fraud. The Department is continuing to take initiatives in this area to ensure that fraud and overpayments do not occur. But there are conflicting requirements in providing assistance for the needy quickly and avoiding overpayments. Sometimes those conflicting requirements create great difficulties.

In recent times the Department has stepped up efforts in the area of benefits control. It has upgraded the level of management provided for debt recovery in the States and created a new section in the Central Office to co-ordinate recovery and prosecution. The latest development was holding an intensive workshop last October which had the aim of developing a national strategy to attack the prevention, identification, investigation, calculation and recovery of overpayments. A follow-up meeting will be held late this week to develop a draft action plan. After the draft action plan has been developed it is intended that the final action plan will be put to Cabinet for approval.

This is a difficult area. I can remember some of the difficulties one faced as Minister for Social Security. For instance, there were some horrific cases of attempts at fraud. One of the most difficult I can remember was a woman over the age of 70 who, at that stage, managed to perpetuate the biggest individual fraud on the Department. Prosecution of someone of that age and sex made for a very difficult and delicate situation. One finds other cases of the single mother who is having difficulty. In the past she worked part time for a small income which she did not declare, certainly incorrectly. Gradually she worked more and more until she found herself on a treadmill and did not want to declare things in case she got into trouble for what she had done previously. In this regard, various Ministers of Social Security I think have thought of taking the New Zealand example and having an amnesty, although an amnesty in such circumstances would be very difficult in this country.

The Department does take serious action for fraud. The Government's attitude is that if people defraud the Commonwealth of revenues, be they taxation, social security or anything else, they should be prosecuted unless there are very good reasons not to prosecute them. In fact, that policy is followed through. I have drawn officers' attention to Senator Baume's view that the attitude in the Estimates Committee seemed a bit cavalier. I am sure that that will be taken on board.