Prisoners paid £800k in benefits while behind bars in Northern Ireland
Prisoners were handed more than £800,000 in benefits - even though they were banged up in jail.
Officials found over 3,000 examples of inmates wrongly claiming cash in three years.
In hundreds of cases they were receiving Jobseeker's Allowance and Carer's Allowance - despite being locked up for committing serious crimes.
Officials were unable to confirm if all of the money has been recovered.
The chair of Stormont's spending watchdog has written to the Northern Ireland Audit Office to demand an investigation into how the blunder occurred.
UUP MLA Robin Swann, who heads the Public Accounts Committee, said he was astonished by the revelation.
The payments occurred under the watch of the former Department for Social Development (DSD). The benefits system now falls under the remit of the Department for Communities.
Mr Swann told the Belfast Telegraph: "I am amazed that DSD did not catch on that they were paying people inside prison Incapacity Benefit, Carer's Allowance, Jobseeker's Allowance and other benefits - how did the department believe they were performing these tasks?"
The department said money is recovered only where "reasonable and cost effective to do so".
Details of the payments emerged after a Freedom of Information request from this newspaper to the Department for Communities.
In three years to April 2014, a total of £801,596 was wrongly paid out to prisoners.
Officials found 3,299 examples - an average of £242 each.
- 583 cases of prisoners receiving Jobseeker's Allowance - a total of £58,550;
- 1,269 cases of prisoners receiving Employment Support Allowance - a total of £368,171;
- 583 cases of prisoners receiving Income Support - a total of £110,130;
- And 130 cases of prisoners receiving Carer's Allowance - a total of £20,848.
Mr Swann said the blunders must be urgently investigated.
"I have written to the Comptroller & Auditor General to request that the remit of the National Fraud Initiative be extended to include a forensic look at the failures that allowed these monies to be paid," he added.
"I, like other MLAs, often have to fight and struggle to get constituents access to the benefits they are entitled to, so to see this flagrant abuse of the benefits system is appalling.
"I also hope that the current Department for Communities takes immediate action to recoup these monies where paid in error."
Mr Swann said he would be pressing for more information. "The tax-paying public deserve to know what category of prisoner these benefits were paid to and what sentences they were serving," he added.
The department was unable to provide information for the last two years because of a system upgrade in 2014, which means the data is not held in the same way as previously.
A spokesman said: "Overpayment figures for 2014/15 and 2015/16 are available, however, as we cannot specifically identify the rationale for the overpayment we are therefore unable to report on a comparable basis."
Previously, the amount wrongly paid to prisoners had been growing rapidly.
The 1,004 cases identified in 2011/12 amounted to a total of £198,300. But in 2013/14 this had spiralled to £346,625, albeit the number of cases (1,017) had only increased slightly.
It suggests prisoners were receiving even more money they were not entitled to.
A spokesperson for the Department for Communities said details of all prison committals and releases are received twice weekly and checked to establish those in receipt of benefit. The relevant benefit-paying office is then notified of the date of committal and release.
She said: "A number of factors therefore can influence the frequency or amount of benefit which may be paid in these circumstances (including) the administrative process required from the point of committal, notification, review of benefit entitlement to payment adjustment.
"In some cases benefits are paid in advance and will inevitably require to be recovered.
"There are particular rules around the payments of benefits to persons in custody. For example, a person held on remand but not yet sentenced will have benefit paid pending trial, which will be retrospectively recovered in the event of a guilty verdict.
"The department has a duty to protect public funds and to recover overpayments of benefit where it is reasonable and cost effective to do so. This is undertaken in accordance with current legislation, policy and procedures."
In July a report by the Audit Office found millions of pounds in benefits had been wrongly paid in Northern Ireland. Housing benefit fraud and overpayments amounted to over £1.2m. Suspected fraud, error and overpayment in relation to pensions totalled more than £1.4m.