£51.7m lost to fraudulent benefits claims in Northern Ireland
Benefit fraud is now costing £1m every week in Northern Ireland, a report warns today.
The cost of bogus claims topped £50m last year - a rise of nearly 15% from 12 months previously.
Another £36m was lost because of errors, auditors found.
In total, fraud and official mistakes cost taxpayers almost £88m in the 12 months to last April.
The figures are set out in a report today from the Northern Ireland Audit Office. It details the results of audit work on the 2016/17 accounts of government departments and other public sector bodies.
One of its key findings is the continued rise in benefit fraud.
In the 12 months to last April, a staggering £5.896bn was spent on benefits in Northern Ireland.
This included £5.1bn on social security, including Disability Living Allowance and Jobseeker's Allowance.
A further £704m was spent on Housing Benefit, £665m from the Housing Executive and £39m by Land and Property Services (LPS).
However, today's report identifies rising levels of fraud and error.
It states that total overpayments in 2016/17 topped £87.7m, a rise of 12% from £78.8m in 2015/16. Benefits paid through fraud are estimated to have increased by £6.6m, to £51.7m.
Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen said the cost was unsustainable. "Whilst it's still some way off from the £61m high which was fraudulently claimed back in 2001, we can't afford to be losing over £51m of taxpayers' money when so many of the UK's public services are crying out for support and investment," he said.
"Our welfare system is an essential safety net for the vulnerable, the sick and those with disabilities.
"Importantly, it also helps tens of thousands of low-paid workers right across Northern Ireland to continue to remain in employment, so when people fraudulently claim from the system they are hurting those who most rely on it."
Northern Ireland's benefits system falls under the remit of the Department for Communities. It said money lost through fraud or error accounts for only 1% of its expenditure.
Last year, 280 people were convicted for benefit fraud, with more than 300 more prosecutions since April. But Mr Allen said it was clear that the overall deterrent policies are no longer working.
According to the report, the level of fraud in housing benefit increased from 2.1% to 3%.
Auditor General Kieran Donnelly added: "The increase was not specific to a single or particular fraud type, however undeclared earnings remains the primary cause of fraud within Housing Benefit.
"Responsibility for the levels of fraud and error in Housing Benefit transferred to the Department in 2017. This should provide for greater consistency in targeting and reducing the level of fraud across benefits and the prioritisation of resources towards those benefits at greater risk, such as Housing Benefit."
Errors also led to some people missing out on benefits they were entitled to. Underpayments due to official error totalled £19.7m, compared to £18.5m in the previous 12-month period.
A Department for Communities spokeswoman said: "The levels of loss from social security administered benefits in 2016/17 through fraud or error remained at a historic low level of just 1% of expenditure.
"Within that level of loss, benefit fraud specifically remained at 0.6%, similar to the previous year. This represents significant progress from fraud levels of over 2% some years ago.
"Nonetheless, the Department accepts that scope remains to press down further on fraud/error in certain areas such as Housing Benefit, and that any percentage of loss equates to significant amounts in benefit expenditure terms.
"The Department therefore remains committed to maintaining its momentum in successfully targeting and detecting fraud and error across all benefits and will continue in its robust approach to ensuring the public purse is protected."