Claimants of social welfare got up to €70,000 too much
SOME social welfare recipients have been overpaid as much as €70,000 in benefits.
This has been blamed on social welfare officials putting less of a focus on policing the payments, because they are busy dealing with a rising number of applications for benefits.
The department could not say last night who was in charge of policing the payments.
Most cases involved people who returned to work but continued to pick up payments for a few weeks.
The Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was told yesterday about the massive overpayment figures, but officials from the Department of Social Protection insisted that these were rare, with the average overpayment being around €1,500.
In some cases, efforts by the department to recoup the massive payments are unsuccessful, leading to millions of euro of taxpayers' money ultimately being written off.
More than €11m was written off in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. This was a huge increase on the €4.86m lost the year before.
Niamh O'Donoghue, secretary general at the department, put the increase down to more people claiming benefits.
This, she said, led to greater efforts to ensure that people who needed benefits were getting them, with less of a focus on policing payments.
There were 48,796 overpayments in 2008 and 42,119 in 2009. The figure rose to 51,950 in 2010.
Ms O'Donoghue said the highest overpayment in 2009 was €77,000 on a widow's pension. However, she insisted that it was rare for overpayments to be so high.
She added that the department tried to recover excess payments. The biggest sum recovered in 2009 was €119,000.
PAC chairman John McGuinness said he had people coming into his constituency office who had been overpaid by €75,000, €45,000 and €25,000.
Ms O'Donoghue said the main areas open to fraud were the dole, disability payments and payments to one-parent families, where there is problem with co-habitation.
The one-parent family payment is not available to people who are in a relationship and living with a partner.
Ms O'Donoghue identified this as an area of concern and said a survey on the scheme, which was started in the spring, would be completed shortly.
The committee also heard about an investigation by the department into 270 cases where the one-parent payments were being made.
This led to 67 people having their payments stopped -- which Fine Gael's Paschal Donohoe described as "extraordinary".
Ms O'Donoghue said that the level of fraud was not that high across all one-parent families, and said the investigation was carried out in a certain area because suspicions had been aroused among welfare officers.