More than $220 million has been handed back to 145,000 welfare recipients stung by the government’s Robodebt since refunds commenced, senior public servants say.
The scheme was ditched earlier in 2020, after being ruled unlawful, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologising in Parliament for “hurt or harm” caused by the process.
His apology was echoed on Friday by the head of the Department of Social Services Kathryn Campbell, at a senate committee examining the unlawful debt recovery scheme.
“The Department and the agency also apologise for any hurt or harm and are focused on applying the lessons learned in the future,” she said.
The federal government has committed to refunding $721 million in debts to more than 370,000 Australians, saying refunds would start from July 1.
Ms Campbell and other senior public servants charged with overseeing the scheme told the committee that refunds had begun flowing, with 145,000 people having their debts fully refunded as of Thursday.
The value of the refunds already finalised topped $224 million.
“It is expected the majority of refunds will be processed by November 2020,” Ms Campbell said.
The Robodebt scheme automatically issued notices to welfare recipients identified as having debts through a process of income averaging, which compares a person’s reported income with their income as measured by the Australian Tax Office.
But in November 2019, the Federal Court of Australia found income averaging could not be solely relied upon to issue debts.
The decision led to a pause on new notices, with the government announcing earlier in 2020 that it would waive outstanding debts and refund those that had already been paid.
In June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison apologised in Parliament for the Robodebt scheme.
“I would apologise for any hurt or harm in the way that the government has dealt with that issue and to anyone else who has found themselves in those situations,” he said.
“The business of raising and recovering debts on behalf of taxpayers is a difficult job.
“Of course I would deeply regret any hardship that has been caused to people in the conduct of that activity.”
Labor and the Greens have called for a royal commission into the scheme.