Transcript: 3AW Melbourne, Interview with Neil Mitchell

24 November 2017

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services
Topics: 
Welfare payments - prisoners
E&OE

NEIL MITCHELL:         
I mentioned earlier a report in the Herald Sun that Victorian prisoners, about 20,000 of them, ripped off about $16.5 million in taxpayer funded benefits. Now some of this requires self-declaration. Who would have thought that a prisoner would lie to get benefits? In fact they're not entitled to it when they're in jail, they shouldn't get anything.

On the line the man in charge of tidying this up, the Human Services Minister Alan Tudge, good morning.

ALAN TUDGE:
Good morning, Neil.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
Now, who would have thought prisoners ripping us off. What a surprise.

ALAN TUDGE:
I think that's right. So we've been cracking down on this over the last few years and have been very successful in doing so and the figure that you mentioned there we've recouped already $16.5 million...

NEIL MITCHELL:         
Oh you got it back?

ALAN TUDGE:
...back to the taxpayer.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
How did you get it back?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well, basically we raised debts against them. So, frequently these are people who have- they're either still in prison or they've exited the prison system. If they've exited and then they're on welfare payments, we take some of their welfare payments or we quarantine some of their income.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
How much of it was a case of the prisoner saying oh yeah, I'm entitled to this this and you didn't even know they were in prison?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well that certainly can happen. Now, if they're on an unemployment benefit we know that they've changed their circumstances because they're no longer job searching. But if they're on a pension or a disability support pension, we won't necessarily know immediately if they go into prison. So what we have instituted is data matching with the correctional facilities so that we get immediately informed. Now, some prisoners are clever people and they will go to all lengths to try to avoid this data matching process by creating aliases, by changing their birth date and the like which makes it more difficult for us. But again we've upped our- the sophistication of our work, and are now catching those people.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
What is the worst case you've come across?

ALAN TUDGE:
There was an individual who had claimed over $60,000 over several years. In payments a person on a disability support pension...

NEIL MITCHELL:         
Must have been a bad crook if they're in jail several years.

ALAN TUDGE:
Well must have been. I don't know what he was in jail for but we've now caught him. He's finally been caught up because- just the level of the sophistication of our data matching combined with some manual interventions as well, we're finally catching up with these guys.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
But what if he says: okay, I've ripped off 60 grand but I can't afford to pay it back. What happens to him?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well there'll be a debt notice against him. If he's on a welfare payment when he gets out of prison we'll be able to quarantine some of that. We'll also just be able to undertake other activities to be able to get the money back for the taxpayer.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
What about nationally? You're talking about Victorian figures here, what's it like nationally?

ALAN TUDGE:
I haven't got those figures for you, Neil, but inevitably this will be occurring across the board in prisons right across Australia and we've got this activity and undertaking it nationally. We've got an overall effort across Australia in terms of cracking down on welfare fraud and bringing integrity into the welfare system.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
If you've got $16.5 million back, how much was taken?

ALAN TUDGE:
Well that's the amount which we have identified. So...

NEIL MITCHELL:         
And you've got it all back?

ALAN TUDGE:
So we haven't got it all back, no. So we've identified this money. There'll be repayment plans in place to get it all back.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
Will these people be charged?

ALAN TUDGE:
If they have deliberately committed fraud then that will be up to the DPP and up to the police.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
[Indistinct] committed fraud, if they're in jail they're not entitled to benefits. End of story.

ALAN TUDGE:
Well that's exactly right. Now, they're not entitled to benefits. Now, I suppose if I was to give somebody the benefit of the doubt, they inadvertently failed to tell Centrelink that they'd gone to prison. But those decisions are not for me or for my government, they're up to the police and the DPP.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
But they will be referred for consideration?

ALAN TUDGE:
Absolutely. We believe that they've had an intent to defraud this system - and this is across the board, not just with prisoners - but anybody who has an intent to take welfare dollars when they're not entitled to it can be referred to the DPP, will be, and can be prosecuted and in some instances referred to prison.

NEIL MITCHELL:         
Thank you very much. The Minister for Human Services, Alan Tudge. I hope they are charged- I think there'll be a lot of them who unquestioningly would know they're rorting the system. I hope they're charged and prosecuted and put back in jail without any benefits being paid to them.