Labour and the teacher unions say debt collectors should only be called in as an absolute last resort after the Government decided to chase down $1.8 million still owed by teachers who were overpaid between 2012 and 2014 because of problems with the Novopay payroll system.
The move to re-commence debt collection comes more than two years after debt collection was abandoned because of a string of embarrassing incidents, including debt collectors chasing a woman on maternity leave for a $22 debt.
Novopay Minister Steven Joyce said more than $22.7 million had now been repaid and arrangements were in place for a further $1.9 million. However, $1.8 million was still owed by 1960 people, dating from 2012 to 2014 - an average of $918 per teacher. "We need to make every effort to recover taxpayer money that has been made in error."
Post Primary Teachers' Association president Angela Roberts said the issue could have easily been dealt with by working with the teachers involved and she questioned why Mr Joyce had to make a big announcement about it.
"They should just get on with it and write to the people who are involved. But no, Mr Joyce for some reason thinks it's really important to flex his muscle and show he's going to sort out those naughty teachers who are trying to nick taxpayers' money."
She said the reason some repayments were taking so long was because Novopay had parked debt collection in 2013 to deal with wider problems in the system. They were now contacting teachers to work through repayments and they had been assured debt collectors would only be called on as a last resort.
Mr Joyce said the Government had consulted the education sector about the decision and would continue to brief it. Before debt collectors were called in, Novopay's debt management unit would contact schools and the affected staff, advise how the overpayment happened and give options for repayment.
Labour's education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, said it was appropriate to follow up on the overpayments although it was not the best time of year when many teachers were dealing with exams. "Timing-wise not ideal, but there's no question people who have been overpaid should repay the money."
Mr Joyce said debt collection was halted in March 2013 because of ongoing high error rates in the payroll system and pressure on staff.
Any debts of less than $100 were written off. There was also significant pressure on the Government over the failings of Novopay.
One case that prompted the rethink in policy was a West Auckland teacher who promptly paid back $1840 in overpaid salary but later got an early morning visit to tell her $22.78 for union fees paid on her behalf was being referred to debt collectors.
At the time, the teacher unions said the use of debt collectors was "heavy handed" given the problems Novopay was causing and reported some teachers were being approached at schools.
The Novopay payroll system was introduced in August 2012 despite glitches in testing. Its introduction was fraught and resulted in teachers being overpaid, underpaid and sometimes not paid at all. Mr Joyce said yesterday that the error rate was now lower than 0.25 per cent of payments.
• August 2012: Novopay goes live with ongoing problems with overpayments and underpayments.
• March 2013: Novopay/ Ministry of Education halts debt collection until problems can be resolved.
• November 2015: Debt collection starts again.
Since Novopay was introduced in 2012:
• Repaid: $22.7 million
• Plans to repay: $1.9 million
• Still owing, no plans to repay: $1.8 million owed by 1960 people - an average of $918 each.