Only half of an £8.6m sum wrongly paid out by the Department of Finance under a scheme for businesses hit by Covid lockdowns has been clawed back.
Over 15,000 businesses in Northern Ireland in total received the support under the Localised Restrictions Support Scheme (LRSS), the department said.
But in the case of 972 applications, £8.551m was paid by mistake, the department confirmed.
Just over half — £4.347m — has been recovered.
The figures were disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information request about the wrongful payments.
The department said the amount was less than 3% of the total paid out, which it confirmed was £320m to 15,400 businesses.
In a statement, the department said the LRSS had been “designed and delivered at pace to support businesses through the Covid-19 pandemic”.
“There was a risk that erroneous payments would be made due to the necessary pace at which the scheme was conceived and administered.
"Furthermore, frequent amendments to the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations and The Financial Assistance (Coronavirus) Regulations, resulted in challenges for the scheme administrators in interpreting and applying these changes.
"The frequent changes also resulted in certain businesses genuinely misunderstanding their entitlement to the scheme.”
It said that Land & Property Services, which had administered the scheme, had reviewed all of those who'd been identified as ineligible or who had been overpaid under the scheme, against its criteria.
“It has contacted all applicants regarding their overpayment, providing them with the opportunity to appeal and details of how to make a repayment. This process is continuing.”
It has contacted all applicants regarding their overpayment, providing them with the opportunity to appeal and details of how to make a repayment. This process is continuing.
The LRSS was launched by Finance Minister Conor Murphy in October 2020 to support businesses who had to shut or severely curtail their operations as a result of Covid regulations. It was administered by the department’s agency, Land & Property Services (LPS).
Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said: “I understand the difficulties and the pressure faced by LPS, trying to get the money out the door to the companies who needed it.
They did an extraordinary job, having to repurpose themselves to do that. But there should also be a mechanism to get back the money that shouldn’t have been paid out.
In April 2021, LPS said it had identified 69 sports clubs which had received funding under LRSS and had since been determined to be ineligible.
Speaking at the time, Conor Murphy said he was “determined to get money out to businesses as quickly as possible”.
Businesses in the Derry and Strabane area were the first to get the grants.
Under the scheme, small firms got £800, medium businesses £1,200 and bigger firms, £1,600. To qualify, a firm or trade had to be the occupying business within a commercial property which has been required to close or severely restrict its trading.
Cafes, pubs and restaurants, hotels and guesthouses, close contact services and indoor visitor attractions were all covered by the scheme.
It was then extended in November, by which point £12.9m had been issued to 3,418 businesses. The scheme was closed on April 7, 2021, and payments stopped in late May.
On April 2, an update from the department said over £260m had been paid out under the scheme.