Belfast Telegraph

£30m bill as too much is handed out in benefits

By Noel McAdam

More than 100,000 overpayments in social security benefits were written off in Northern Ireland over two years, costing the public purse almost £30m, a major report revealed today.

And the number of cases of overpayment is increasing, the head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office Kieran Donnelly said.

Overall, the estimated level of losses due to overpayments of benefits amounted to £56.1m —while a total of £19.5m is being underpaid to clients across the province.

But within that total, overpayments in 54,343 benefit cases were written off during 2009/10, costing £17.1m, compared to 50,400 the previous year, which resulted in a loss of £12.2m.

Mr Donnelly said the high and increasing level of cases, and the amounts involved, were “a matter of concern”.

But the Department for Social Development said they reflected changes in policy and procedures which brought the system into line with the rest of the UK.

The public spending watchdog also slammed an extra cost to taxpayers for the revamped Grand Opera House of almost £2m.

The report said the Arts Council and Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure had recognised “a significant breakdown in project management” over the revamp and extension of the famous Belfast theatre.

In 2009 the total cost for the re-fit was put at £10.6m — an overrun of £2.2m, of which almost £500,000 was to be met from existing funding and development donations.

The watchdog also criticised the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for failing to approach the Department of Finance and Personnel earlier for approval when the cost of the new critical care building at the Royal Victoria Hospital increased by 50% from £97.6m to £143m.

“Departments must be more proactive in monitoring... particularly in the current economic climate,” he said.

The report also voiced concern about “significant levels of estimated fraud and error” in relation to state pension credits, which, while reducing, remain at £12.9m. He said the majority of overpayments, amounting to £6.2m, are “because of official error”.

Mr Donnelly said there had been a general overall reduction in official errors between 2005 and 2009, but he continued to highlight it because it was an area where departments “continue to have the most control”.

Belfast Telegraph


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