Robodebt continued, despite legal doubts, after obtaining Scott Morrison's support, the investigation heard

The then minister of social services wanted Centrelink's debt recovery proposal to be worked on for the 2015 budget process, the royal commission says

The Department of Human Services developed its proposal for a robodebt scheme, despite serious legal doubts in other departments, following support from Scott Morrison, a royal commission has heard.

The royal commission is investigating a failed debt recovery scheme, which ran from July 2015 to November 2019 and culminated in a $1.8 billion settlement between the government and hundreds of thousands of people who incurred unlawful Centrelink debt.

Although the Department of Social Services provided damning legal advice on the proposal in late 2014, the investigation heard Wednesday that DHS compiled a summary for what constituted the scheme in early 2015.

At the third day of hearings, the inquiry was notified because Morrison, then minister of social services, wanted the proposal to be processed for the 2015 budget process.

It is heard that this puts significant time pressure on the same Department of Social Services officials who have raised serious doubts about the legality of the proposal.

The royal commission has not heard evidence of warning suggestions against the scheme reaching Morrison. He had been granted leave to appear on the royal commission if he wished.

Helping senior adviser, Justin Gregggery, said in late 2014 the Centrelink compliance proposal had "been part of the budget" and the Department of Human Services had indicated Morrison wanted the proposal to evolve.

In early 2015, officials at DHS began drafting measures for “strengthening the welfare integrity system”, which are expected to save $1.2 billion in budget.

The investigation heard that one of the actions – on which the robodebt scheme was based – was “generally consistent” with a proposal submitted by the Department of Social Services months earlier.

The inquiry heard while an initial draft for a policy proposal said the scheme would require "legislative changes", a later draft said this was not necessary. So far it's unclear what the final copy of the policy proposal says.

The royal commission heard this raises concerns within the DSS, with an official, Catherine Dalton, seeking "urgent advice" on the proposal.

“And what we now know from the benefits of looking back is that this particular proposal was indeed included in the 2015-16 budget … as a strengthening of the welfare integrity system,” said Greggery.

Under questioning, Anne Pulford, a lawyer in the Department of Social Services who warned against the plan in December 2014, agreed to the minister's support for the proposal limiting the time available to provide "considered legal advice".

While DSS officials noted some of the assumptions used to shape Pulford's damning suggestion had "changed", the royal commission heard that officials only had two days to review the policy proposals considered for the budget.

Greggery asked: “Looks like a very tight timeframe and pressure is coming from Minister Morrison's permission to develop a new policy proposal until it can be submitted to the Treasury?”

The investigation heard DSS attorneys then identified other potential legal issues, including over what data might be "pulled" from the tax office through data matching. 

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