Yesterday while all eyes were on Boris Johnson’s ” Build,Build, Build ” speech the Department for Work and Pensions slipped out their annual accounts for the last financial year.
In what looks like a classic “cover up ” job to bury bad news, the ministry probably did not want the world to know that their accounts had been censured for material inaccuracy for the 32nd year in a row.
The reason is the failure of the ministry to be able to account for unacceptable levels of fraud and error in the huge number of benefit payments. Billions of pounds have been overpaid to claimants through fraud and mistakes by claimants and errors by officials. And billions of pounds have been underpaid by officials to claimants because they have made mistakes in calculating people’s benefits.
The latest figures are a record for every year since John Moore, was social security secretary under Lady Thatcher in 1988.
It shows that ” Excluding State Pension, the estimated rate of overpayments has increased again to 4.8% (£4.5 billion) of estimated benefit expenditure, from a restated rate of 4.4% (£3.8 billion).
“The estimated rate of underpayments, excluding State Pension, has decreased to 2.0% (£1.9 billion), from its estimated rate of 2.2% (£1.9 billion) in 2018-19. The rate of overpayments in 2019-20 is the
highest estimate to date.”
The worst benefit is the new hated Universal Credit which has suffered from both overpayments and underpayments and claimants have to wait five weeks before they can get it. Since the payment depends on claimants’ monthly varying income the scope for inaccurate reporting of the money is large.
The report says: “For Universal Credit, the estimated rate of overpayments increased from 8.7% to 9.4%. This is the highest recorded overpayment rate for any benefit other than Tax Credits (administered by HMRC), which peaked at 9.7% in 2003-04.”
“Underpayments rates have fallen for Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and Pension Credit, and the estimated rate for Housing Benefit has increased. Personal Independence Payment has the highest rate of underpayments at 3.8% of expenditure in 2019-20. This rate has not changed from 2018-19.”
But the small print of the report also reveals how the Department calculates this. It takes samples of benefit payments to arrive at these figures but the National Audit Office reveals that 61 per cent of the benefits paid out to claimants are based on recalculated estimates for the previous year.
Some other omissions are staggering. The Department has never checked whether payments are accurate for claimants on Disability Living Allowance for 16 years – last done in 2004-05.
More extraordinary the Department has never checked whether money paid out to 12 million pensioners is accurate or not since 2005 – that is 15 years ago.
Instead the department maintains there is no serious fraud or underpayments in pensions – calculating it as just £300 million out of an annual payment of £98.6 billion.
Given this year we had a case this year of a 94 year old pensioner being owed a staggering £117,000 because of 34 years of underpayments, I find this complacency mind blowing.
I also think the National Audit Office, as their auditors, is remiss in not asking for an update.
Next year’s estimate of benefit fraud and error is likely to even more out of kilter thanks to Covid 19 as the ministry have got rid of staff monitoring fraud to be able to pay out the 2.6 million claims for universal credit.
And although the department is said to be investigating 143,000 suspicious claims under Covid 19, it can’t follow them up because it can’t visit them at home.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said :
“I am concerned that fraud and error in benefit payments have risen again. Fraud and error have a real cost, both for those who face deductions from their income due to overpayments and because it reduces the public funds available for other purposes.
“As the Department takes on a set of unprecedented challenges arising from COVID-19 it is more important than ever that my qualification is not seen as business as usual and the Department responds in a cost-effective way to minimise risks of fraud and error.”
Next year I am certain will be the 33rd year the ministry accounts are questioned and found wanting.