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Top bureaucrat failed to notice major robodebt change

A major mistake in a ministerial briefing about the controversial robodebt scheme slipped past a senior public servant.

Kathryn Campbell was secretary of the human services department when robodebt was proposed and later the social services department while it operated.

Ms Campbell says she did not notice a major change to a brief that ended up misrepresenting crucial components of the failed scheme.

The program ran from 2015 to 2019 and introduced debts calculated by income averaging using tax office data.

Ms Campbell was quizzed about why a ministerial brief in 2015 said there was no change to the way income was assessed or overpayments were calculated, even though there had been.

Asked if the reason she did not notice the change was because she did not pay close attention, Ms Campbell said she could not recall.

She agreed it was a significant oversight.

"As the secretary, I was responsible for what happened within the department and I did not notice the change in the drafting," she told the robodebt royal commission.

"Was there pressure placed on me to say that no legislative change was required? No."

Counsel Assisting Justin Greggery suggested the department changed the language in the brief so it could avoid having to change legislation required to implement the measure, which would have been difficult to pass through parliament.

Ms Campbell rejected this suggestion.

"I have never been in a department that has sought to mislead the government," she said.

Commissioner Catherine Holmes suggested the former secretary was "shielded" by her department from bad news about the scheme, particularly in relation to its illegality.

"A lot of bad news got to me on other topics," Ms Campbell said.

The commission is examining how the scheme was allowed to continue, despite significant concerns about its legality being raised in early 2017.

Ms Campbell told the commission she did not consider the fairness of income averaging because her focus was on ensuring customers could engage with the system.

Asked if she considered the possibility the debt recipients did not engage with the department, Ms Campbell said she didn't until January 2017, two years after the program started.

She said debt letters were put on hold between January and August 2017 to allow the department to make the system more "user friendly".

"I thought fairness had been achieved, procedural fairness, by ensuring the recipient had received the correspondence," she said.

Commissioner Holmes asked if Ms Campbell considered whether the proposal was "intrinsically unfair", regardless of whether legislation had passed to allow it to happen.

"At that time I thought it was legal. I now know it not to be the case," Ms Campbell replied.

Last week the commission heard from Ms Campbell's replacement as human services secretary, Renee Leon, who said her predecessor "took credit" for the robodebt scheme as something she had thought of.

Ms Campbell rejected this claim.