Robodebt survey finds officials have been under pressure to make budget savings

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

A former Australian government official involved in creating what became known as the robodebt system told a royal commission that his team at the Department of Social Services was under significant pressure to make budget savings.

Royal commission investigates Centrelink’s botched debt collection scheme, which ran from July 2015 to November 2019 and continued to be investigated despite internal legal warnings, resulting in a £1.8bn settlement dollars with hundreds of thousands of people.

Critical questions investigated include what prompted the development of the debt collection program and what relevant departments did following internal legal warnings about the program.

Related: ‘Watered down’ legal concerns included in robotic debt briefing for Scott Morrison, inquest finds

The inquiry has already heard that the idea for the scheme moved quickly once it found favor with then-new social services minister Scott Morrison, who wanted it considered for the next 2015 budget. Morrison was appointed to this position at the end of 2014.

Scott Britton, a mid-level civil servant who was the former national director of the DHS compliance team, admitted on Tuesday that legal issues over the methods used in the program were a consideration on his team in June 2014.

But he said he never received legal advice, that it was another official who had been instructed to engage with lawyers, and that he did not recall writing any documents advising the planning minister.

Britton, who led a team to check customer records for social debts, said throughout 2014 there had been internal pressure to find budget savings.

“We were continually asked for new ideas, new proposals, new concepts, additional savings,” he said.

“I certainly felt the pressure internally…I don’t know if it was…all internal or from ministers,” he said.

The investigation heard on Monday says that within DHS there was internal pressure caused by “aggressive and demanding” leadership.

Britton said those pressures were communicated to him by his direct boss, Mark Withnell, who relayed pressure from Malissa Golightly, then assistant secretary at DHS.

Britton said initially he and his team considered whether they could use the data to streamline their compliance work due to a massive backlog of investigations.

“Economics, I personally think, became the main driver, but initially it was about modernization,” he said.

A minute-long email prepared by Britton in 2014, some nine months before the finalization of what became robodebt’s proposal, showed among the considerations the need to seek advice on “income averaging” – the method data matching that was at the heart of the program.

The document claimed the practice was legal but said further guidance should be sought.

Catherine Holmes SC asked: “And that’s as early as June 2014?”

“Yes,” Britton replied.

In-house legal advice from Department of Social Services lawyers six months later said the method was likely illegal.

Britton insisted he had not received any legal advice. He said it was another DHS official, Jason Ryman, who “engaged” with attorneys.

When asked if he relied on Ryman to “decide what legal advice to seek for the project,” Britton said he “certainly relied on Mr. Ryman to engage with lawyers”.

“Again, I don’t recall specific discussions about the scope and definition of legal advice,” he said.

Britton also said he did not recall personally preparing any of the policy proposal documents that went to Morrison, although he or his team may have provided information used for those documents.

“I don’t have a specific memory,” he said. “I remember conversations at the time about the minister, I think Morrison, was the minister…I just don’t remember any details.”

Britton said it seemed “about right” that Ryman was tasked with developing the robodebt measure as a formal policy proposal.

Asked by assistant attorney Angus Scott about the level of personal oversight he had over the robodebt project, Britton said he was “definitely part of early development…most likely regularly in conversation with Jason. [Ryman] and his team”.

The conversations focused on driver development and testing of what became the robodebt program, he said.

Ryman will testify later on Tuesday.

Later, Britton was asked if the department had the IT capability to do the robodebt project.

“It wasn’t really an option at the time not to deliver,” he said. “So [we] really pushed everything with what we needed to do.

He said there was a “decision made not by me” to accelerate the full robodebt program in 2016, after a 12-month pilot period, despite the fact that there were existing IT issues.

The royal commission continues.

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