Ireland
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About 20,000 believed to have received pandemic unemployment support while working are to be contacted by department

Around 20,000 people believed to have received Pandemic Unemployment Payments at times they were working are to be contacted by the Department of Social Protection with a view to recovering up to €70 million in overpayments.

The department had identified some 14,000 cases involving a potential recovery of €47 million by April of this year in which PUP payments may have overlapped with periods of employment according to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report published on Friday.

The report states, however, that the numbers were expected to rise to 20,000 and €70 million respectively with letters to those believed to have received overpayments due to start being sent this month.

In addition, the report says, 58,000 cases have been identified where either the claimant was ineligible for PUP payments or the required paperwork was not returned, either by them or their employers. No figure has yet been put on the amount potentially recoverable in these cases.

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The report suggests more should be done to prevent overpayments in areas like pensions, job seekers’ allowance and children’s allowance on an ongoing basis.

Total overpayments by the Department of Social Protection averaged €112 million per annum – around 0.45 per cent of total spend - during the five years to the end of 2022 but where reviews were conducted, the report suggests, the findings indicated higher rates of overpayment were occurring than were generally detected.

The department aims to recover some €95 million each year but the figure achieved in those five years was just short of €80 million per annum and the total owed to the State by those who had received overpayments remained almost unchanged at €495 million at the end of 2022, a reduction of just €4 million or 1 per cent on the figure for 2017.

For every euro of overpayment identified, the report suggests, around 66 cent of debt is recovered and 34 cent written off.

Fraud accounts for less than 20 per cent of overpayments according to the report. Of 853 cases prosecuted between 2016 and 2002 almost half, 404, resulted in the imposition of fines, 198 in the Probations Act and 81 in custodial sentences, of which 64 were suspended.

PUP featured prominently in the overpayment case numbers in recent years but the report also highlights a number of other particular instances.

Between August 2018 and mid 2019, it says, some 11,800 recipients of illness benefits were overpaid by a total of €11.4 million due to an error which occurred during the upgrading of IT systems. The latest figures indicate that 49 per cent of the money has been recovered to date with 7 per cent written off.

In December 2019 11,000 claimants received a double payment in error. Some €2.4 million was involved but over €2 million of this was subsequently recovered.

Elsewhere, the report finds that the Social Insurance Fund, into which money is paid to cover future social protection payment payments and pensions, has performed better than previously projected in recent years. The funds reserves were hit by Covid but were estimated to have increased by just over €2 billion in 2022.

The report anticipates, however, the fund will be in deficit from 2034 with the annual shortfall hitting €10 billion by 2050 and €20 billion by 2070 as the ratio of workers to pensioners declines substantially.

The National Training Fund, meanwhile, is projected to have an accumulated surplus of €2 billion by the end of 2025 according to the report. The monitoring of how money from the fund is used by its most prominent recipients, the Higher Education Authority and Solas, is criticised in the report which also suggests spending, estimated at €901 million this year, should be more targeted at “investment in close-to-labour-market skill requirements”.

“We need to see a more strategic focus on expanding apprenticeship programmes, the funding is clearly there,” said chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Brian Stanley TD on Friday.