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24 Sep, 2018

Australian welfare debt dodgers being hit with travel bans

Canberra, 22 September 2018, Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation media release – Welfare debt dodgers are being warned they could be hit with international travel bans as part of a new push to recover hundreds of millions of dollars owed to taxpayers.

The Department of Human Services began issuing Departure Prohibition Orders (DPOs) in June to prevent former welfare recipients from leaving the country if they have an outstanding debt that they have consistently refused to repay.

More than 20 DPOs have already been issued and the Department is now looking to escalate their use to help recover more than $800 million owed by more than 150,000 people who are no longer in the welfare system.

These people are making no effort to repay their debts and the Government believes that if they can afford to go on an overseas holiday, they can afford to start repaying what they owe.

We make no apologies for the tough action we are taking, as many of those who are in our sights have known about these debts for years – in some cases for up to a decade.

Others accrued their debts as a result of deliberate acts of fraud and have gone out of their way to evade attempts by my Department to sign them up to repayment plans, repeatedly ignoring our calls, letters and emails.

The message we are sending to them is that you cannot ignore us forever. If you received a payment you were not entitled to, you have an obligation to repay the money you owe and we will use every tool at our disposal to ensure it is recovered on behalf of Australian taxpayers.

The simplest way to avoid having your travel plans disrupted is to contact the Department immediately to arrange a repayment plan.

How much you have to repay each week or fortnight will depend on your personal circumstances and those experiencing genuine hardship can have their repayments deferred.

Those who are currently receiving a welfare benefit, or are already making repayments, are not being targeted by this new measure.

DPOs have been used successfully for more than a decade as a way to encourage parents to meet their child support obligations. More than 1,200 were issued last year and about 400 people were stopped at airports attempting to defy the bans.

The first welfare travel ban was enforced last month against a New South Wales resident who owed approximately $10,000 and had been given multiple warnings prior to the DPO being issued.

The individual then tried to leave Australia on business and was stopped at the departure gate and told they could not fly. They have since made a significant down payment on their debt and agreed to continue making regular repayments in order to have the ban lifted.

A Victorian customer who owed a debt of about $60,000 as a result of fraudulent claims was hit with a DPO after receiving multiple warnings. The person has since begun making regular repayments and the DPO remains in place to ensure they continue to comply.

Another New South Wales resident who owed $20,000 has since repaid the entire amount in full after they received a warning that a DPO was about to be imposed if they did not take action.

In all of these cases, other debt recovery options had proved unsuccessful and a DPO was issued as a last resort.

Australians believe in the idea of a fair go for those who rely on our welfare system. But they also believe in a fair go for those who fund the system – the Australian taxpayer.

That is why we are working hard to recover this money so that we can keep the welfare system viable and affordable. That enables us to guarantee other essential services such as schools, transport and hospitals.

In a separate measure, the Government has also begun applying interest charges to debts owed by former welfare recipients who refuse to make repayments.

In just a few months, that measure has already encouraged tens of thousands of people to start meeting their obligations.

Those who are subject to a DPO will also continue to have interest charged on their debt until they take action as an additional incentive for them to repay the money they owe.

People who are concerned that their debt may affect their overseas travel plans are encouraged to enter into a payment arrangement using the Money You Owe online service within myGov. Taking this step will safeguard them from any interruption to their travel.