Revealed: Just one in four Northern Ireland benefit fraud cases ends with prosecution
Less than a quarter of suspected benefit frauds result in prosecution, it can be revealed.
In some cases people who defrauded the system by tens of thousands of pounds have escaped court. In the most shocking example, a suspected fraudster who claimed more than £160,000 avoided criminal proceedings.
More than £1m is lost to benefit fraud every week in Northern Ireland, according to official figures.
It has led to calls for tougher action against fraudsters.
DUP MP Gregory Campbell said: "There would need to be extremely rare, extenuating circumstances for people to understand why action was not taken.
"People will be appalled that prosecutions are not brought in the most serious cases."
SDLP MLA John Dallat added he was "horrified" at the scale of the problem.
The Department for Communities (DfC), which has responsibility for the benefits system, said fraud investigations do not always produce sufficient evidence to meet the test for prosecution and/or conviction.
It said that all overpayments must be repaid, regardless of whether a prosecution is brought.
Details of benefit fraud investigations were disclosed by the DfC after a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper.
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.
A case may not be prosecuted in the same year it was investigated, so the figures in any one year are not always directly comparable.
However, they do indicate a continued pattern of a minority of cases reaching court.
In each year offenders who were suspected of some of the biggest frauds avoided prosecution.
Of the five biggest fraud cases investigated in each of the last six years - a total of 30 cases - 19 did not result in a prosecution.
- £161,874 which was received by someone who wrongly claimed benefits by not telling officials they were living together with a partner.
- A further £131,521 which was claimed by an individual who committed the same type of fraud.
- £148,853 which was paid out to someone who investigators said had a "doubtful disability".
- £120,167 which was claimed by an individual who had undeclared capital, savings or income, or was living beyond their means.
- £99,452 which was received by someone believed to have committed identity fraud.
The figures do not include 'customer compliance' cases, which deals with lower risk cases.
Typically these involve people who failed to report a relevant change in their circumstances, but where a fraud investigation is not appropriate.
Mr Campbell said where people are entitled to welfare payments, it is correct they should do so.
But he added: "Where people deliberately defraud and abuse the system, it is expected that they will be punished, particularly those who are repeat offenders and those involved in the most serious types of fraud."
Mr Dallat said: "As a public representative I'm horrified that so much money public money has been taken on fraud."
While acknowledging it was not cost-effective to pursue every case, he said it was a "disgrace" the Stormont impasse meant a Public Accounts Committee could not properly scrutinise benefits spending.
Official statistics show that benefit fraud is a rising problem across Northern Ireland.
A report by the Audit Office in March 2018 estimated a cost of over £50m a year.
It looked at figures from 2016/17 when almost £5.9bn was spent on benefits here.
In that 12-month period, £51.7m was lost through fraud - up by £6.6m (nearly 15%) on the previous year (2015/16).
The Public Prosecution Service decides if a suspect should face trial, but adjudicate on a relatively small amount of cases compared to DfC.
Considerations include the strength of evidence, likelihood of conviction and public interest.
Most of the cases considered by the PPS will result in a prosecution.
DfC said: "The department works closely with the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland to ensure that as many benefit fraud cases as possible are put before the courts.
"There are a number of reasons why any given case may not be prosecuted once the evidential and public interest tests have been applied.
"Whether prosecuted or not, all individuals with benefit overpayments are required to repay any overpaid monies to the department."