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Centrelink's debt: 230,000 have now been hit

The number of letters sent out under Centrelink's controversial robo-debt policy has soared past 230,000 as the federal appeals tribunal braces for a flood of disputes.

Treasury costings have put the price of Centrelink's data-matching and debt recovery at least $93 million, including payments to commercial debt collectors.

The election policy costings, from mid-2016 also predict the cash-strapped Administrative Appeals Tribunal will have to find more than $3 million to cope with the expected flood of Centrelink clients taking legal action to fight against debts claimed by the welfare agency. 

But there is good news for the millions of Australian families who receive family tax benefits; they are not on Centrelink's debt recovery hit list.

The Coalition government has vowed to push ahead with the controversial program, that aims to claw back up to $4.5 billion in welfare overpayments in 1.7 million "compliance interventions" in coming years, despite the storm of protest from citizens who say they are being hounded for money they do not owe.

Costing the policy for the 2016 election, when it was envisaged that only 750,000 "compliance interventions" would take place, Treasury put the cost at $93.6 million.

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"This policy would cost DHS [Department of Human Services] approximately $93.6 million to administer, which includes contractors and ICT requirements," the costing document reads. 

"As specified in the costing request, any additional departmental costs associated with administering this policy is to be met from within the existing resources of DHS. 

The much smaller Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which hears the first rounds of legal disputes between Centrelink and its clients and which finished the past financial year several hundred thousand dollars in the red, is expected to absorb "approximately $3.3 million in total costs to deliver this proposal."

The tribunal, which received more than 15600 applications for reviews of Centrelink decisions in the 12 months to July 2016, was contacted for comment but did not respond before deadline on Thursday.

As the federal opposition piled on the pressure on Thursday for the program to be halted,  Hank Jongen, spokesman for Centrelink's parent department Human Services, confirmed that more than 232,000 letters had know gone out since the data-matching effort was stepped up in July.

"From 1 July 2016, 232,000 letters requesting people to confirm or update their information have been issued," Mr Hank Jongen said.

"This letter is not a debt letter and simply asks them to go online and either confirm or update the information.

"Since July 2016, 169,000 people have completed the request to confirm or update their information.

The spokesman also confirmed the vast majority of letter recipients so far had been mostly young people who had claimed either Newstart or Youth Allowance. 

"The compliance measure applies to those income support payments where earned income may affect payment eligibility and rates," Mr Jongen said.

"This has primarily involved Newstart and Youth Allowance.

"This compliance activity does not apply to non-income support payments like FTB.

"The first letter generated by the system advises people there is a difference between the information reported to Centrelink and the information reported to the ATO. "


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