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Decision on JobSeeker rate expected by December, as Centrelink debt clawback resumes

National

A longer-term rate for JobSeeker unemployment payments is expected to be announced by early December amid indications a coronavirus supplement will continue into next year – but Centrelink will begin chasing down welfare debts from next Monday.

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Unemployment Australians are receiving $250 more a fortnight than usual with the coronavirus supplement.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said a decision would be made based on economic conditions.

“If the evidence supports the continuation of elevated levels of support, they will be made available to Australians who need them,” she told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday.

“I think the prime minister made it very clear and provided certainty to Australians that on the 1st of January there is very likely to be continued elevated levels of support, recognising that we still are in a pandemic and we still don’t know when this pandemic is going to end.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday gave his strongest indication yet the coronavirus supplement could be extended into next year.

“I have been clear and leant into it pretty heavily that people can expect the COVID supplement to be going forward beyond the end of this year,” he told parliament.

“The precise level and the arrangements that sit around that are matters the government is considering now and will be doing so over the next few weeks.”

The coronavirus supplement is currently $250 a fortnight, having shrunk from $550 at the height of the pandemic.

The boost is due to end in December and the government would have to legislate a further extension.

Morrison said a decision would be made before parliament rises for the year on December 10 so it can be stamped into law.

Without the coronavirus supplement, the dole payment would return to its pre-pandemic rate of an average $550 a fortnight or $40 a day – an amount which had not risen in real terms for decades despite ongoing criticism it was below poverty level.

More than one million unemployed Australians currently receive JobSeeker. The numbers rose after COVID-19 restrictions shut down businesses and jobs across the country, while changes and reductions to the amount and eligibility for JobKeeper subsidies are also expected to boost jobless numbers.

Centrelink debt clawback begins

Australians on welfare will also soon be subject to Centrelink’s debt recovery program again, with the government ending the pause put in place because of the pandemic.

The program aims to claw back overpaid welfare payments.

From November 2, Services Australia will contact welfare recipients if they think people been paid too much.

Victoria will be excluded, as will other states if they’re in a state of disaster.

But the agency won’t start to try and get Australians to pay back the money until February 2021.

Government Services Minister Stuart Robert said the delay would help people plan for the future.

“This could include adjusting the information they are reporting to Services Australia,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

“As debt activity starts again, Services Australia will work with people to make the process as clear and simple as possible. The agency will explain how debts arose, where to go for more information, how to self-service and offer other support.”

Robert said people would be able to repay debts voluntarily prior to February if they had been given too much.

“It can be managed within their personal circumstances.”

The debt recovery program is no longer automated after blunders with the previous so-called ‘robo-debt’ system, which is facing a class action challenge.

The scheme was also ruled unlawful last year, with the Federal Court saying Centrelink could not have been satisfied debts raised were correct.

The scheme matched Australian Taxation Office and Centrelink data to claw back overpaid welfare payments.

The Morrison government is currently paying all debts raised through the system back to Australians, estimated at about $721 million.

-with AAP

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