Belfast Telegraph

Land and Property Services civil servant sacked and probed by police on suspicion of fraud

Auditor: Kieran Donnelly
Auditor: Kieran Donnelly
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

An employee of Land and Property Services has been sacked over suspected fraud, it has emerged.

The details came to light in an annual report from the Northern Ireland auditor general Kieran Donnelly into LPS's accounts.

Mr Donnelly said that as well as "unacceptably high" levels of housing benefit fraud and error - £4.9m in 2018/19 - LPS had recently informed him of suspected fraud by an employee.

This related to the misappropriation of refunds due to customers.

"LPS has commenced its own investigation to establish the full circumstances and the amount involved," he said. "The PSNI has been informed. I will report on the outcome in due course."

A PSNI spokesperson said: "Detectives at Musgrave received a report in July of suspected fraudulent activity by an employee at a government department. A male was subsequently arrested on suspicion of fraud by abuse of position and interviewed. He has since been released on police bail as enquiries continue." A Department of Finance spokesperson confirmed the individual involved had been dismissed in line with Civil Service procedures.

"LPS has already taken action and put in place controls to mitigate against any reccurrence. As a police investigation is currently under way it would be inappropriate to comment further".

Mr Donnelly's report added that the £4.9m in Housing benefit error and fraud was part of £38.1m paid out by LPS during 2018/19 to people who own their own homes.

Blunders from officials and claimants accounted for £2.9m of the cost, customer fraud for £1.6m, and £0.4m in underpayments because of errors by officials.

Homeowners can apply for housing benefits if they are on low income and suffering financial hardship or in receipt of other benefits.

Outstanding ratepayer debt, as of March 31, was at £124.5m compared to £125.8m the previous year. A total of £15.9m debt was also written off by LPS for 2018/19, down from £19.3m in 2017/18.

Mr Donnelly added: "I recognise that over a number of years LPS has made considerable improvements to fraud and error rates, but the increase in both customer and official error in 2018 is concerning.

"The levels of fraud and error in LPS total housing benefit expenditure continue to be unacceptable, and the qualification of my audit opinion reflects that."

While welcoming the reduction, he noted £125m in ratepayer debt was still unavailable for public use.

"LPS has pointed out this includes late rate assessments and debt that is under a payment arrangement and the majority of the debt outstanding at year-end is expected to be recovered," he added.

"It is therefore important that all necessary steps are taken to maximise recovery."

The department spokesperson acknowledged that Mr Donnelly had recognised improvements. This included LPS collecting over £1.3bn rates revenues, the highest level of rates to date.

"The level of rate debt in Northern Ireland is now at an 11-year low and as highlighted by the comptroller and auditor general the majority of the £125m is expected to be recovered as this figure includes late rate assessments and debt that is currently committed to through payment arrangements."

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