Departure Prohibition Orders (DPOs) have long been used as a tool by the government as a way to stop those who owe debts from leaving the country before they pay their debts, even if they are just going on a holiday. It has been used successfully for more than a decade in the enforcement of child support payments, and by the ATO as well. Now the government has started applying DPOs to prevent former welfare recipients from leaving the country over debts as small as $10,000.

So far, more than 20 DPOs have been issued and the Department of Human Services is looking to increase the use of DPOs to help recover more than $800m owed by more than 150,000 who are no longer in the welfare system. DPOs are only issued in cases where the individual has consistently refused to repay their debts and have ignored multiple warnings. The real question is whether this increased used of DPOs as a way to exert pressure on individuals to pay their debts will spread to other areas such as ATO debts.

The ATO guidelines on DPO indicate that the Commissioner can issue a DPO where an individual has a tax liability and the Commissioner believes on reasonable grounds that it is desirable to issue a DPO to ensure that the individual does not depart Australia without wholly discharging the tax liability or making arrangements for the tax liability to be discharged. This is regardless of whether the individual intends to return. In addition, DPOs can apply to both Australian citizens and foreign nationals who are liable to pay Australian tax.

In deciding whether to issue a DPO, the ATO will take into account all relevant facts and circumstances, including whether: the debt can be recovered; disposal of assets had occurred; the individual has sufficient assets overseas to maintain a comfortable lifestyle; the actual need for travel; and recovery proceedings or audit activity in progress. Again, issuing of DPOs will only be pursued after initial collection activity.

Therefore, the Commissioner already has a wide remit to issue DPOs in circumstances he considers to be appropriate. Data from past years indicate that the majority of DPOs were issued in relation to tax fraud/evasion on an international scale, related to wealthy or high-net-worth individuals or their related entities. Even then, the fact that the ATO has issued relatively few DPOs in the past few years may be an indication that it will not be applying this method to pressure individuals with smaller tax debts.

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