There is likely to have been a “significant incidence” of overpayments to people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), as it was warned that “even small levels of payments in excess of entitlements to welfare can amount to significant losses of public funds”.
In a review of social welfare payments, the Comptroller and Auditor General said that a control survey from the Department of Social Protection earlier this year found that just under one in five (18%) jobseekers’ allowance claimants were receiving more than they were entitled to.
The net value of overpayments under the scheme was estimated at 8%, which the Comptroller and Auditor General characterised as “high”.
In its survey, the department cited the impact of Covid-19 on the overpayments, as face-to-face interactions with claimants was curtailed and all new claims were being paid by electronic fund transfer.
In another survey carried out on child benefit, there were overpayments of 1.4% overall within the scheme.
Separate analysis of the PUP found that 8% of a sample of claims examined had evidence to suggest they weren’t eligible for the payment on the date in question.
In two-thirds of cases, there was evidence that the claimant was employed while in receipt of the PUP while in the other cases, there was no evidence that a job had been lost.
The report noted: “The audit findings in respect of 2021 PUP expenditure are broadly consistent with those of the 2020 audit, and indicate that the rate of irregular payment on the PUP scheme continued to be material in 2021. There has been no control survey to estimate more reliably the level of irregular payment of PUP claimants.”
Another Covid payment, the enhanced illness benefit, was found to have a “low risk” of claims being awarded where the person was not eligible.
In terms of the recovery of overpayments, the Comptroller and Auditor General said the decision on whether to raise an overpayment is the responsibility of the case-deciding officer.
But, in the majority of cases, overpayments were not raised where the control surveys identified an excess payment.
“The rationale for raising, or not raising, an overpayment was not recorded on the case files examined at the time of the control survey,” it said.
“The department stated that in April 2021 it instructed deciding officers to state clearly and to record the reason they decided to issue a current date decision instead of a retrospective decision.”
In its conclusions, the Comptroller and Auditor General said that the level of irregular payments found by the Department of Social Protection is “material”.
It recommended an increasing number of control surveys to ensure such instances of overpayment are captured.
It added: “A perceived low likelihood of having to repay any overpayments received in the past, even if an excess entitlement situation is detected, may mean that there is little or no incentive for many claimants to keep the department informed of information relevant to their claims.”