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800 lockdown benefit fraud claims in Northern Ireland as staff did other work during coronavirus pandemic


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Caral Ni Chuilin (Niall Carson/PA)

Caral Ni Chuilin (Niall Carson/PA)

PA

Caral Ni Chuilin (Niall Carson/PA)

Hundreds of allegations of benefit fraud were made during a 10-week period when investigators were redeployed because of the Covid-19 crisis, it has emerged.

Nearly 800 claims of fraud were received from the beginning of April to the middle of June as staff from the Fraud Investigation Unit were reassigned to assist with the surge in benefit claims.

The details were disclosed by the Communities Minister, Caral Ni Chuilin.

She was responding to an Assembly question from SDLP MLA Colin McGrath.

Ms Ni Chuilin said the Department for Communities received 769 allegations of benefit fraud during the period from April 1 to June 17 "and all these allegations will be fully investigated".

Mr McGrath, an SDLP MLA for South Down, expressed concern at the figures.

He said he was aware of a case in his constituency where a woman and her family were left without any benefits, and the rent not paid, for weeks because of identity theft.

He added: "You have an individual case, but if not working at full capacity how many other cases are there where somebody makes a fraudulent claim, gets the money and because of that you lose out on benefits.

"I want to see a result for my constituent personally, but I want staff to be returned back to their duties because this is public money being stolen or defrauded."

The MLA added he did initially hear the fraud investigation unit was redeployed, leading to his Assembly question. He asked the Communities Minister when this happened and how many cases were reported since.

In her reply, the minister said: "The department's fraud team has not been stood down at any point.

"Some staff from the Fraud Investigation Unit have been temporarily redeployed to assist with urgent benefit administration in light of the pandemic."

This includes dealing with the "unprecedented increase" in claims for discretionary support payments and universal credit. Ms Ni Chuilin said an evidence verification team of trained fraud investigators was created to carry out checks on universal credit claims flagged up by frontline staff.

"Across my department we are now actively working towards recovering all our services which includes assessing when staff temporarily redeployed will return to their normal duties.

"We hope to return to our normal level of service as quickly as possible."

Benefit fraud in Northern Ireland is estimated to cost the public purse more than £56m a year.

The amount lost to fraudsters has risen by almost 30% in five years.

The figures are contained in the annual accounts of the Department for Communities, which also reveals how our benefits bill is now running at more than £6bn a year.

The highest levels of fraud were seen in claims for Employment and Support Allowance (£20.7m) and housing benefit (£17.5m).

the total amount benefit fraud is estimated to cost the public purse in Northern Ireland every year

Belfast Telegraph