Editor's Viewpoint: Time to hit hard those who rob public purse
At a time when austerity measures are hitting every facet of everyday life in Northern Ireland it is scandalous that benefit fraud is running at £1m a week. The £51.7m paid out on bogus claims is money which is desperately needed to fund public services in the province.
There are sections of society which see fraud involving the public purse as a fact of life. The feeling is that the money is coming out of an endless pot and that the government can well afford it. At worst it is a victimless crime.
That, of course, is nonsense. Fraud on this scale - it rose by 15% in the last financial year - affects many people. It affects genuine claimants who need every penny that the system, faced with a mounting benefits bill, can give them.
It also affects those who take low-paid employment which is topped up by benefits. These are people trying to make the most of their lives and skills, and who don't want to simply exist on benefits.
And it affects countless other people who could avail of services which could be funded by the lost £51.7m. Practically every day in recent months this newspaper and other media outlets have carried stories on public services which are under threat because of lack of government funding.
The scandal is that the public purse has been diminished by the criminal behaviour of benefits fraud.
Sadly, it has also been diminished by expensive mistakes by the relevant benefits paymasters which saw £36m paid out in error. This is not a one-off occurrence, unfortunately, but an annual one. The figures may differ but every year there are significant sums of money mistakenly paid out by government departments and agencies.
It is accepted that the benefits system is a complex one and that mistakes are inevitable, but to have them occur on this scale is unacceptable.
Surely with all the technological advances in accounting systems it should be relatively simple to ensure that errors are kept to a minimum?
Tackling fraud must remain a priority for those paying out benefits.
The total lost in fraud last year may be £10m less than the £61m high in 2001, but it is still at an unacceptable level.
Those detected and found guilty of benefit fraud deserve deterrent sentences as a warning to others.
However, it seems many people feel the rewards far outweigh the risks and continue to rob the public purse.