Efficiency call for benefits system
Almost £200 million has been spent on running the benefits system in Northern Ireland, an Audit Office report has said.
The public spending watchdog called for greater focus on achieving efficiency as it disclosed the Social Security Agency (SSA) bill for 2012/13.
A project intended to slash the cost by operating joint job seekers and welfare payments offices closed prematurely in 2011 having only completed 27 out of 35 planned centres and overspent by millions, a review found.
Reducing the number of benefit processing centres could lead to further efficiencies, the review said. Welfare spending is a key issue of dispute between Sinn Fein and the DUP as the parties attempt to revitalise powersharing at Stormont.
Comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly said: "Whilst the SSA has implemented a number of welfare reform and modernisation programmes in recent years, the primary focus of these have been meeting the requirements of legislative and policy change, not the efficiency of benefit administration. In the future, it is important that efficiency considerations are to the fore."
Money for operating the welfare system is paid for out of the Northern Ireland block grant. The actual benefit is funded directly from Westminster.
In 2012/13 the SSA spent £196 million on benefits administration. Any reduction in administration costs would generate savings which could be used to improve other services in Northern Ireland, Mr Donnelly said.
Key findings of his report included:
:: The Jobs and Benefits Office Project (2001-2011) co-located 27 social security offices (from the SSA) and 27 Jobcentres (from the Department for Employment and Learning). The project closed prematurely in 2011, having completed 27 out of a planned 35 jobs and benefits offices. The total cost for the 27 completed offices was £60 million, £17 million more than the £43 million originally estimated to complete all 35.
:: A 2006/13 project consolidated back office benefit processing into 16 processing centres. The report concluded that fewer centres could have enabled further efficiencies to be achieved through greater economies of scale.
:: The Belfast Benefit Delivery Centre, run by SSA but providing processing services for benefit claimants in London, already processes claims more efficiently than the current local office network.
Universal Credit, which consolidates six existing benefits into a single benefit, would offer the SSA a significant opportunity to focus on improving the efficiency of benefit administration and to make significant longer term savings, the audit office said. Savings will arise from a reduction in the numbers of staff required to administer Universal Credit.
Mr Donnelly's report added: "The introduction of Universal Credit would also offer SSA the opportunity to reassess the size of its office network. The use of online and telephony delivery models for Universal Credit may allow SSA to reduce the size of the estate by co-locating offices with other public services or relocating to smaller offices, whilst still maintaining the same number of offices for claimants who need to attend."