More than €111m overpaid by Department of Social Protection

More than €111m overpaid by Department of Social Protection

Of the overpayments made by the Department of Social Protection last year, some €19.6m related to suspected fraud and over €69m was attributed to customer error. Picture: Denis Minihane

More than €111m was overpaid by the Department of Social Protection last year, over half of which was attributed to customer error.

That includes some €19.6m relating to suspected fraud and over €69m attributed to customer error, around €17m of which is attributable to Covid-related cases.

The majority of those Covid-related cases involve the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP), including instances of customers returning to work and continuing to claim PUP.

Among the other most common types of customer error are delays in the notification of deaths, particularly in relation to old age pensions, and delays in informing the department of increases in means or a change of circumstances.

Suspected fraud

There were some 5,600 suspected individual cases of welfare fraud last year.

The 5,600 cases of suspected fraud is a drop from the 6,300 recorded the previous year, which was linked to €19m in overpayments.

The department also reported overpayments of €17.5m in estate cases and €5.3m in departmental error.

The department received almost 7,800 individual reports of suspected fraud from members of the public, with just under 6,300 leading to further investigation, attributing a saving of almost €6.8m to these anonymous tip-offs.

The highest proportion of reports related to people who were said to be claiming a payment and working concurrently.

Overall, the level of overpayments fell last year, with €111.6m recorded, compared to €122.7m overpayments recorded in 2021.

Jobseekers’ payments account for around 66% of suspected fraud cases with the most common type of welfare fraud being concurrently working and claiming (71%).

Irish Congress of Trade Unions head of social policy and employment affairs, Laura Bambrick, said of the figures: “There is a major gap between the public perception of the scale of welfare abuse and measurable facts.

“The Department of Social Protection is the biggest spending government department. In 2022 its annual budget was €23.4bn; 1.35m people received a weekly social welfare payment, which support over 2m adults and children in total each week.

"That said, it is vital that DEASP ensures, and that the public is confident, that public money only goes to those with a genuine need and entitlement.

If the public does not have confidence in the Department of Social Protection’s ‘control and compliance’ checks to prevent and detect fraud and overpayment it undermines taxpayer support for funding our welfare system."

As for the PUP overpayments, Ms Bambrick said: “Over the course of the two years of PUP payments, a third of the entire workforce, 880,000 workers, would be reliant on the PUP at one point or another.

“While €48m did go to 19,000 people (2.2% of all claimants) who were not eligible, of which €13m has so far been recovered, the total spend on the PUP was over €9bn.

“Of the 19,000 PUP overpayments, just over 1,000 are suspected fraud at a cost of €4.4m. The bulk of overpayments relate to people not closing their claim on their immediate return to work.” 

The department said just under 555,000 control reviews were undertaken during 2022 across a wide range of schemes and finalised prosecutions in the courts of 66 people, down on the figure for previous years, for welfare fraud.

Convictions were secured in 39 cases and the benefit of the Probation Act was applied in a further 15 cases. The sentences imposed included fines ranging from €100 to €3,000, and custodial sentences of six months.

Legal proceedings

Separately, 123 cases were referred to the Chief State Solicitor’s Office (CSSO) in 2022 for the initiation of legal proceedings.

Facial image-matching software was used to investigate 29 suspected cases of welfare fraud last year.

It said around €80m in overpayments are recovered on average each year, through lump sums, deductions from social welfare payments or standing orders, sometimes over a period of years.

Ms Bambrick said: “The vast majority of overpayments of social welfare is down to client error, not fraud. That is, people not informing the department in a timely manner of a change in their circumstances, such as getting a wage increase that would reduce their weekly means-tested social welfare payment.

“But also pensioners not declaring, for example, a small holdings or a post office saving account in their maiden name, which when they die their estate is hit with a bill from DSP for the years of State Pension payments they never had an entitlement to. Granny isn’t typically who people think of when they conjure up an image of a welfare fraudster."

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