Saturday, 17 May 2008

Govt to crack down on welfare fraud

The Federal Government is expanding its ability to crack down on welfare fraud.

The Government is providing $138 million for a new computer system to widen a program allowing the four major banks - Commonwealth, NAB, Westpac and ANZ - to provide Centrelink with information about suspected welfare cheats.

It follows a trial period with Commonwealth Bank and the money for the data-matching program was included in this week's Federal Budget.

Federal Human Services Minister Joe Ludwig says the changes should save taxpayers an estimated $600 million over four years.

He says privacy concerns have been addressed.

"Civil liberties are not eroded by this. There is a balance struck between ensuring that welfare fraud is addressed appropriately and ensuring that privacy is protected and that balance is there," he said.

"Centrelink does follow the strict Privacy Commissioner guidelines."

But the Federal Opposition says the Government has gone too far in its plans to scrutinise the bank accounts of some welfare recipients.

Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson says the Government is seeking 'big brother' type powers.

"Every person in the country is entitled to at least a minimum level of privacy," he said.

"It doesn't matter whether you're struggling and on Centrelink payments, or whether you're an everyday person out there doing a job."

Opposition human services spokeswoman Helen Coonan says she wants more detail on the plan.

Ms Coonan says the Coalition's access card, which the Government has scrapped, would have done the same thing.

"I think there's a very serious concern about how it is done, but the Labor Government is really playing catchup with the Coalition, which was well down the track of introducing an access card where all of these concerns had been very much addressed," she said.

'Rubbery fingers'

Meanwhile, civil libertarians have attacked the crack down as an attack on privacy.

Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman says the Government is using rubbery figures to justify an attack on people's rights.

"We hear year after year, more and more dollars are being brought in as a result of welfare fraud in court cases," he said.

"The Government doesn't need these powers. The money that's being thrown around, that supposedly will be saved, are the same sort of wild, plucked out of the air figures that we heard in relation to the access card that was ditched 12 months ago."

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