The Federal Government is going after nearly 170,000 Australians who have welfare debts, warning them that they would be charged with interest on the funds owed that have gone over by more than $900 million across the country.

The people that the government are after, are no longer claiming welfare benefits but have collected debt from former false claims. The Government has not charged interest on such welfare debts before.

“Some of these debts go back up to 15 years,” said Human Services Minister, Michael Keenan.

“But moving forward, it’s very important that if you earn money, and you’re not doing anything about repaying that money when you have the capacity to repay, then your debt is going to accrue interest and continue to increase,” he added.

Not everyone realises they may be in the wrong though. If you are experiencing issues with repayments, rightly or wrongly received from Centrelink you can receive free independent legal advice through contacting your nearest Legal Aid Centre.

The Department of Human Services has began getting in touch with these people and have told them they have a month to commit themselves to a repayment plan, or be hit with the interest charge that sits at 8.77%.

Keenan admitted that the Federal Government had been far too nice in the past.

“People just haven’t made any effort to repay it, and the Commonwealth has continued to engage with people, reminding them to repay it,” Keenan said.

“There’s all sorts of ways that we can escalate that, including sending our debt collectors.”

One severe example of outstanding debts comes from Queensland, where the Government claims a former welfare recipient owes roughly $800,000 from a series of false welfare claims including for children that did not exist. The Department has only received back $3,000 to date.

Keenan was asked whether criminal charges should be pursued as a priority in that case, alongside the debt recovery.

“If people are deliberately defrauding us, then we will make referrals of that to the police, and they will look at it in conjunction with the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions,” Keenan remarked.

“Just because we’re chasing you for the debt, doesn’t preclude us from taking other actions such as police action.”

The Coalition’s welfare fraud clampdown has faced substantial condemnation in the past.

The bungled Centrelink robo-debt program led to large numbers of people getting wrongly pursued for overpayment of social security benefits. A Senate inquiry into Centrelink’s management of the controversy called on the program to be suspended.