The nation's last line of defence against welfare fraudsters is under threat from public service cost-cutting.
Centrelink's ''Random Sample Survey'' system, which conducts spot checks on thousands of welfare claimants each year, has already begun shutting down units and the remaining teams are undergoing a ''value for money'' audit to determine if they will survive.
The random sample teams throughout the country have uncovered tens of millions of dollars in fraud and overpayment in the past several years, but face an uncertain future. The Bureau of Statistics has been called upon by the cash-strapped Department of Human Services to run the rule over the teams and their activities.
Outstanding debts for social welfare and income support payments surged past $1.5 billion in the last reporting period and departmental insiders are aghast that any movement to weaken enforcement is being considered.
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Random Review Teams are stationed in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Western Australia and look at all aspects of a claimant's finances to determine if they are entitled to the welfare benefits they are claiming.
The ''whole of payment reviews'' look to uncover hidden bank accounts, investments or properties as well as undeclared superannuation payments, income from overseas and even live-in spouses who have not been reported to welfare authorities.
Debts of $30,000 raised by review teams are commonplace and overpayments of up to $60,000 are also regularly discovered.
The Townsville random review team closed down in October because it was deemed not cost-effective. Its work was moved to units in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, which have to cover a massive geographical area including Cairns, Townsville, the Rockhampton region and the Northern Territory.
Now DHS public servants fear the entire review systems may be under threat after it was disclosed internally in January that the Bureau of Statistics was being brought in to review the teams' work.
A DHS spokeswoman said there were no plans in place to close more review units and it was their ''methodology'' that was being reviewed.
''The ABS is assisting the department to review the random sample survey methodology, [for example] sampling, surveying methods, to ensure it is up-to-date and provides value for money,'' she said.
''The department sought the assistance of the ABS because it has expertise in the conduct of surveys and production of statistics.
''The Townsville random sample surveys team reduced in size through natural attrition and in July 2013 the department determined that it was no longer cost-effective to maintain the team.
''All staff were redeployed to other teams in Townsville.''
The bulk of the $1.5 billion in outstanding debt, as at June 2013, related to the family tax benefit, with $1.1 billion in repayments owing. The age pension accounted for $126 million. More than $208 million was owed for payments of the disability support pension and $47 million in carer payments is due to be paid back.