Thousands of people in Northern Ireland have been caught illegally claiming benefits — while they were locked up in prison.
More than £1.6m was overpaid to criminals who continued to draw allowances after being jailed in recent years, figures show.
In some cases inmates were handed attendance and carer’s allowance while behind bars.
In what has been described as a “damning indictment” of the UK’s welfare system, a total of 4,700 cases where benefits were wrongly paid to prisoners in Northern Ireland were uncovered during the last five years, although a single prisoner may be responsible for more than one claim.
The total value of the overpayments came to £1,638,056 — including £198,299 paid out in the last year alone. But officials were unable to say how much of the money had been recovered.
The figures were revealed after a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Social Development by the Belfast Telegraph.
The majority of illegal claims involved income support, jobseeker’s allowance and disability living allowance.
But in dozens of cases prisoners were found to be claiming for carer’s allowance and attendance allowance.
Robert Oxley, campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance pressure group, said it raised serious questions about the benefits system.
“It’s a damning indictment of our broken welfare system that even criminals behind bars can carry on collecting benefits,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “Taxpayers will be left wondering whether even the most basic of checks are being made when money is being handed to those signed up while they are locked up,” said Mr Oxley.
“If criminals behind bars can take advantage of the system so easily it begs the question ‘how easy is it for those not doing time to rip-off taxpayers?’”
Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland (below), who sits on the Social Development committee, said greater care needed to be taken with public money.
“There are several ways this can arise. It can either be departmental error or it can be a fraudulent claim,” he said.
“No matter who is responsible, public money is being wasted unnecessarily.”
The Department for Social Development said benefits are paid regularly and directly to customers until a change of circumstances is reported and actioned.
“The reasons for overpayments vary, but inevitably there will also be a short period between the committal and the actioning of a suspension, particularly given most benefits are paid fortnightly or indeed monthly,” it said.
The department was unable to say how many of the overpayments had been reclaimed.
2007/08: 1,076 overpayments worth £342,456
2008/09: 898 overpayments worth £448,650
2009/10: 872 overpayments worth £372,170
2010/11: 1,038 overpayments worth £276,481
2011/12: 816 overpayments worth £198,299
Total: 4,700 overpayments worth £1,638,056