Belfast Telegraph

£90m benefits giveaway... fraud and error result in huge overpayments to claimants

By Nevin Farrell

Fraud and error resulted in more than £90m worth of benefits being overpaid in Northern Ireland last year, auditors have found.

Official mistakes also saw around £25m of underpayments, according to the report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO).

The figures were contained in the NIAO's annual assessment of the accounts of Government departments and other public sector bodies.

Auditor general Kieran Donnelly placed "qualifications" on a total of 20 accounts to indicate a variety of weaknesses in financial control.

The Department for Social Development overpaid £71.9m due to fraud and error while it recorded £20.8m of underpayments due to official error.

In the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's administration of £659m of housing benefit, there were £21.1m of irregular overpayments and £4.8m underpaid - equating to a 3.2% overpayment rate and 0.7% underpayment.

Housing chiefs also came under fire for "weaknesses in controls" over maintenance contracts worth more than £12m.

The auditor reported: "Considerable problems have been identified in the past in relation to Housing Executive controls over work done by contractors on its response and planned maintenance programme."

He said while he had found "some improvement in the operation of these controls this year, I continue to have significant concerns in this area".

The report said the fact that 14% of planned maintenance schemes examined had less than satisfactory controls for inspecting the work of contractors "is still a significant cause for concern".

The report said: "In some cases servicing of oil heating systems was not in line with industry standards and contractors were getting paid for services not delivered.

"Since the introduction of the new planned maintenance scheme contracts in 2008 the Housing Executive has been lax in managing them.

"If proper arrangements had been in place, including remeasurement as required under the contract, then the overpayments and underpayments since identified would not have occurred.

"It is unacceptable that checks which should have been carried out under the planned maintenance controls were set aside in favour of a 'light touch' regime under which the Housing Executive appeared to trust that work not done by contractors but paid for would be balanced by the work done by contractors and not charged for."

A Housing Executive spokesman said they have been "working with the Northern Ireland Audit Office over the past year to address issues they have identified".

The PSNI was criticised for being unable to provide information and evidence needed to form an opinion on the regularity of transactions linked to transport contracts under investigation.

Three departments - Education, Health and the Public Prosecution Service - exceeded their spending limits by £13m

Another three - Culture, Arts and Leisure, Employment and Learning as well and the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers - incurred "significant expenditure without obtaining the necessary approval from the Department of Finance and Personnel".

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