Ireland
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€11.1m debt from social welfare overpayments is written off

The Department of Social Protection wrote off €11.1m worth of debt owed from welfare overpayments last year, with the outstanding debt owed due to overpayments standing at €495m at the end of 2022.

In one case, the department sought to recover an overpayment of €900 in respect of a deceased person, which accrued from the date of their death to the date the department was informed. While it was successful in recovering this debt, it did not seek to recover a debt already owed while the person was alive, totalling over €10,000, which was eventually written off in 2022.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) report into welfare overpayments found that the €495m in outstanding debt has changed very little and, for every euro of new overpayment, around two thirds of that is recovered and another third written off.

“A large proportion of debtors are not repaying their debt to the department,” it said.

Some schemes, and in particular the jobseeker’s allowance scheme and one-parent family payment, have a high value of debt, a lot of which is not being repaid and a significant proportion of which is more than four years old.

The C&AG recommended that the department should formally review the reasons for a debt being written off, to establish whether it needs to improve its procedures in future.

While the department accepted this recommendation, the C&AG said it had not addressed its previous suggestions in this regard.

The Department of Social Protection sets a target to recover €95m in overpaid welfare annually but it has not reached that. It said this “challenging” target is set to ensure all efforts are made to maximise the amount it recovers.

In some cases, the department considers cases for criminal prosecution where there is strong evidence of fraud.

Of the 853 cases finalised in court between 2016 and 2022, 46% resulted in a fine, while 10% resulted in a custodial sentence, but the sentence was suspended in most instances.

The C&AG said the value of overpayments detected had remained constant at between €100m and €125m.

The State pension, jobseeker’s allowance, and pandemic unemployment payment had the highest value of overpayments in 2022. Picture: Daragh Mac Sweeney/Provision
The State pension, jobseeker’s allowance, and pandemic unemployment payment had the highest value of overpayments in 2022. Picture: Daragh Mac Sweeney/Provision

By scheme, the State pension, the jobseeker’s allowance, and pandemic unemployment payment had the highest value of overpayments in 2022. These ranged from €17m to €21.8m.

The department said the main causes of overpayment are people working while claiming; payments made after death; and changes in means of which the department has not been informed.

To help clamp down on overpayments, it said it is conducting monthly checks on the likes of claimants who have no earnings declared as means but who appear on Revenue earnings data.

When analysing whether staff followed the guidance set down for instances when an excess payment is identified, the C&AG identified issues in one fifth of cases.

Separately, the C&AG noted that control mechanisms in place to detect discrepancies had been impacted by staffing issues as workers were reallocated to deal with the “Ukrainian crisis”.