Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland losing £1m a week to benefit fraud

Benefit fraud in Northern Ireland cost the public purse more than £56m in the last year, a report has revealed.
Benefit fraud in Northern Ireland cost the public purse more than £56m in the last year, a report has revealed.
Adrian Rutherford

By Adrian Rutherford

Benefit fraud in Northern Ireland cost the public purse more than £56m in the last year, a report has revealed.

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

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly has written to officials saying the level of fraud and error in benefit expenditure remains "unacceptably high".

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).

It has led to calls for tougher action against those who defraud the system.

The Belfast Telegraph has previously reported on the low number of cases that result in prosecution.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell said it was clear that a firmer stance was needed.

"If the Comptroller and Auditor General is saying that these figures are unacceptable, then the department has a responsibility to deal with that," he said.

The Department for Communities said it has a long-standing commitment to reducing fraud and error.

Its annual accounts, published this week, show total expenditure on benefits in the last year was £6.1bn - a rise of 7.7% from five years ago.

This includes £2.3bn on the state pension, £892m on Employment and Support Allowance, and £688m on Disability Living Allowance.

The report details how customer fraud has risen from £43.5m to £56.2m over the last five years - up by 29.1%. Recorded benefit fraud in 2018 included:

• £20,749,065 through Employment and Support Allowance;

• £17,486,007 through Housing Benefit (Tenants);

• £6,238,160 through Pension Credit;

• £3,065,161 through Jobseeker's Allowance;

• And £2,245,117 through Universal Credit.

A further £23.1m was lost in the last year as a result of official error and £13m through customer error, where no fraud is intended.

The department estimated there were also underpayments of £30.5m due to official error.

The figures emerge in a report from the Auditor General, which forms part of the department's accounts. Mr Donnelly said the overall value of fraud and error in benefits expenditure "remains unacceptably high".

Mr Campbell, the MP for East Londonderry, said his warning needed to be acted on.

"Something cannot be described as remaining unacceptably high by a powerful figure like the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the relevant government department not do anything about it," he added.

"There are two issues here - first, the money, with a 30% increase in benefit fraud in five years.

"Then there are the genuine people who are fully entitled to benefits, and who are stigmatised by the relatively small number of people who take advantage of, and abuse, the system.

"The Department for Communities has to respond by setting out what it's going to do to address this.

"If that means tougher sanctions, then these have to be introduced."

The Department for Communities said overpayments from fraud and error has been 1.2% of total expenditure or lower for the last decade.

A spokesman said: "The Department has a sizable and experienced benefit security team which makes use of specific powers to effectively detect and target loss through mistakes and/or intentional frauds.

"For example, during 2018/19, over 8,000 case reviews, interviews or full fraud investigations were undertaken leading to over 2,500 cases where benefit valued at over £17m was stopped or reduced, overpayment recovery was initiated and, where appropriate, sanctions including convictions through the courts were secured.

"The department continues to explore new initiatives to strengthen counter fraud and error activities, and will maintain its readiness for dealing effectively with current and future risks."

In June, this newspaper reported how less than a quarter of suspected benefit frauds result in prosecution.

In the five years to April, a total of 8,092 investigations were identified.

Across the same period, 1,963 benefit fraud cases came before the courts - just 24%.

In the last 12 months, there were 1,157 investigations and 302 cases were brought to court.

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