A sorry tale of fraud and incompetence
Northern Ireland's reputation as a place that enjoys a huge benefits culture, largely thanks to its disproportionate level of DLA claims, suffers another blow in a damning Audit Office report which revealed that fraudsters cheated the public purse out of a staggering £45m last year.
This was the estimated amount paid out in fraudulent claims made to the Social Security Agency, NI Housing Executive and Land and Property Services.
Fraud has now reached its highest level for 11 years.
And that does not take into account over and under payments made by the various agencies, although on the credit side it appears that the level of errors made by the agencies has fallen.
That is some relief to the hard-pressed taxpayer, who ultimately has to foot the bill for both fraud and incompetence.
It has to be accepted that the benefits system is complex and that mistakes can occur. But it has also become something of a cheats' charter, as obviously a large number of claimants are able to exploit flaws in the system to their own benefit.
What is not clear from the Audit Office report is whether those guilty of fraudulent behaviour are being brought to book. Presumably if the agencies are able to estimate the level of fraud, they must base it on some hard evidence that then can be used to prosecute the guilty.
Indeed, it is imperative that those who commit fraud are brought before the courts and given deterrent punishment.
There is a widespread belief that money taken from the public purse doesn't really matter, as there is plenty more where that came from.
But in times of austerity every penny does count, and the fraudsters are not only feathering their own nests, but depriving other vital services of much needed funding.
However, even the cheats are not solely to blame for waste in the public sphere, as the Audit Office report makes clear. Last year £11.9m was spent on the controversial non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive scheme without the necessary approvals and the second phase of the Londonderry to Coleraine rail line, due to be completed this month, has cost more than twice the original estimate of £20m, and is a year late. The former Department of Agriculture lost £17.4m of EU funding through not properly administering the European Agricultural Funds.
All in all, this is a depressing tale of cheating by members of the public and mismanagement by agencies of the State.