Witness Robert Hurman admits his department made ‘false’ statements about Robodebt to ombudsman

A senior bureaucrat  has conceded his department made “false” statements about the unlawful Robodebt scheme, the royal commission has heard.

Robert Hurman, a former director of Payment Integrity and Debt Strategy at the Department of Social Services (DSS), which helped implement the Robodebt scheme, has given evidence at the commission on Wednesday.

Public hearings in Brisbane are focusing on criticism to the controversial Coalition-era debt recovery scheme from media and tribunals after it was implemented in 2015.

The commission heard Mr Hurman became aware that the Commonwealth ombudsman was investigating the online compliance intervention program, also known as Robodebt, in January 2017.

He was involved in the drafting of different “versions and revisions” of a letter from then-DSS secretary Finn Pratt to the ombudsman at the time.

The letter falsely claimed Robodebt was operating lawfully and that the department had not changed the way it assessed welfare recipients’ income.

‘You knew that to be false, didn’t you?’

The commission heard Mr Hurman approved the letter, despite being aware of damning 2014 legal advice that found Robodebt’s central method — income averaging — did not meet legal requirements.

One line in the letter stated: “the Department [of Social Services] is satisfied the system is operating in line with legislative requirements.”

Counsel assisting the commission, Justin Greggery KC, asked: “It’s precisely the opposite of that, isn’t it?”

“Um, yes,” Mr Hurman replied.

Mr Greggery then asked: “Having received the legal advice, you would have appreciated that the program was operating contrary to the … advice and that it was likely to raise inaccurate debts?”

“Uh, yes,” Mr Hurman replied.

Mr Greggery said: “You knew that to be false, didn’t you?”

“I think I know it to be false now,” Mr Hurman replied.

Mr Greggery said: “OK, having agreed with me that that statement is not true, why were you involved in drafting a letter which gave the impression that the department agreed with the statement?”

Mr Hurman said he was not sure.

Mr Greggery asked: “You’d want to be sure about the correctness about the representation to the ombudsman?”

“Yes,” Mr Hurman replied.

Mr Greggery then asked: “And you’re not able to identify where the information came from in respect to that representation?”

After a lengthy pause, Mr Hurman said he couldn’t recall.

He told the commission he “could not remember his motivations from the time as it was six years ago” but that he “accepts responsibility for it”.

‘Not full and frank’

After intense questioning, Mr Greggery put to Mr Hurman that writing an untrue statement to the ombudsman would “very strongly conflict” with Mr Hurman’s “obligations … under the code of conduct”.

Mr Hurman agreed it was a conflict.

Mr Greggery asked: “You adopted a course where you were not full and frank with the ombudsman, correct?”

“I don’t think that was my intention,” Mr Hurman said.

Mr Greggery replied: “I didn’t ask you what your intention was. I said it’s clear that you adopted a course that was not full and frank with the ombudsman.”

“Yes,” Mr Hurman replied.

The commission had earlier been told the Department of Human Services (DHS) – also responsible for the scheme – disobeyed a tribunal’s ruling that the scheme was illegal.

It was shown a damning email in which a government lawyer explicitly advised the department to continue the flawed way of calculating debts, contrary to the direction of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).

The inquiry continues.