Housing benefit overpayments due to errors made by officials have more than doubled since 2019, Northern Ireland’s spending watchdog has found.
Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly found that levels of fraud and error in the system totaled £4.2 million in the 2020/21 financial year, representing 12, 1% of total expenditure on housing assistance.
This is a 1.5% increase from the 10.6% level recorded in 2019/20.
Although there was a decrease in the level of customer fraud, overpayments more than doubled from £0.4m to £1m.
Mr. Donnelly said, “I recognize that over a number of years, LPS has made considerable efforts to improve fraud and error rates. However, overpayments due to official error have more than doubled since 2019. While I appreciate the unique and difficult circumstances LPS faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020/21, I am concerned this significant increase in errors.
Mr Donnelly’s Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report on the 2020/21 Land and Property Services (LPS) Accounts found that some £34.6m of housing benefit was paid during the year, as well as £7.1 million in rate rebates for Universal Credit applicants. LPS currently operates a program to support these applicants when it comes to paying their rates.
The LPS estimates that the level of fraud and error in rate reimbursement expenditure was 9.7%, an increase from the 7.2% figure in 2019/20.
“The [Auditor General] noted that it would keep this matter under review in light of the increasing number of applicants becoming eligible for the rate refund program in the future,” the report said.
“This increase is anticipated due to claimants needing to migrate to Universal Credit from other benefit types, as well as new Universal Credit claimants, including due to the impact of Covid-19.”
The report also highlights how the pandemic has hampered the amount of non-domestic and domestic rate assessments performed by LPS. As of March 31 last year, there were 8,868 non-domestic assessments outstanding, compared to 5,472 on the same date the previous year.
Outstanding domestic cases fell from 12,580 as of March 31, 2020 to 17,510 last year. The combined outstanding caseload stood at £10.6m at the end of March 2021, an increase of £2.7m on the same period a year earlier.
Taxpayer debt levels have also increased over the past fiscal year. At the end of March, that figure was £152.7m, up from £124.4m at the end of 2019/20.
During the year, £5.1m of debt was written off and ‘impaired debt’ – that which is unlikely to be repaid in full – stood at £51.8m at the end of March last year.
“The level of outstanding taxpayer debt has increased significantly since 2019/20. I realize this is because LPS suspended legal collection action in 2020/21 due to restricted access to courts and judgment enforcement offices, as well as uncertainty about how the pandemic would impact citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland,” the report said.
“It also impacted the significantly reduced level of debt write-offs in 2020/21. Additionally, the normal tariff billing cycle was disrupted by the pandemic with tariff bills being issued in June rather than in April and LPS informed me that a further £11 million was collected between 1 April 2021 and the end of May 2021 when this year’s bills were issued. worrying.
The report notes that LPS recently implemented a three-year post-pandemic debt recovery strategy, which aims to return taxpayer debt to 2019/20 levels.