The £5 billion pay out to people who shouldn’t have received it

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Department for Work and Pensions – £3.5 billion of overpayments detected by auditors

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Here is a strange paradox. The government has imposed a tough and to many people unfair benefits and  tax credits regime which has squeezed the poorest – both the unemployed and those in work.

Yet this summer accountants have revealed that HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions has paid out £5 billion to people on benefits and low incomes who should not have received it. And they predict that even more will receive these payments next year. I have written about this in Tribune magazine this week.

The disclosure comes in the annual audit of both departments by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office, who have qualified the accounts of both departments – as not being a true and accurate description of public spending.

According to the NAO report: “HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud that resulted in overpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 increased to 5.5% of Tax Credits expenditure (from 4.8% in 2014-15)

“HMRC estimates that the overall level of error and fraud resulting in underpayments in Tax Credits in 2015-16 remained at 0.7% of Tax Credits expenditure (0.7% in 2014-15). This equates to overpayments of £1.57 billion and underpayments of £210 million.

“HMRC has told us that it believes the level of error and fraud in Tax Credits will increase further when measured for 2016-17. Two main factors have been identified that will lead to this increase: the introduction of the ‘Commercial with a view to a profit’ self-employment test for those who are self-employed and the impact of the Concentrix contract. The impact of these factors on error and fraud levels will not be measured until June 2018, and so the estimate of error and fraud in 2015-16 remains the most up-to-date indication available of error and fraud in Tax Credits expenditure for 2016-17.”

Concentrix were sacked by the department after a privatisation programme went wrong – and they were not up to the job.

Worse are the figures for DWP.

The  NAO’s findings are: “Excluding State Pension, overpayments are at the highest levels since 2009-10, while underpayments are at the highest recorded levels.”

Overpayments amount to £3.4bn, excluding the state pension, an increase of £400 million while underpayments are £1.5bn In percentage terms this amount to an increase to 4.1 per cent of all overpayments and 1.9 per cent of all underpayments.

The report says: “Amongst benefits measured annually for fraud and error, Employment Support Allowance and Housing Benefit overpayments are at the highest recorded levels, and Jobseeker’s Allowance overpayments have returned to the highest levels since 2010-11.

The NAO questions some of the techniques used by the DWP to calculate fraud – saying it assumes that when people don’t get back to the department for a re-assessment that they have been fraudulently claiming. This may not be the case. Also, information is out of date.

“The absence of up-to-date information on error rates in large benefit streams creates a risk that the department is not targeting its fraud and error interventions effectively,” the report says. “For example, Disability Living Allowance, which accounted for £11.5 billion of expenditure in 2016-17, has not been measured for fraud and error since 2004-05.”

All this points to some serious mismanagement by the ministries – which have been squeezed by successive coalition and Tory governments. But it doesn’t mean that those at the top have suffered. I shall return to some interesting findings in their annual reports.

Spending Review: Caveat Emptor- Buyer Beware

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Today the Chancellor, George Osborne, launched the autumn spending review.

From the statement you might guess that he has climbed down over welfare spending cuts by abolishing his plan to cut tax credits, climbed down over big cuts to police budgets and acted to save the mental health budget and save the NHS from further cuts. All terribly good news along with more money for defence equipment, the security services, already announced.

But if you look at the figures he still planning  the same  huge level of cuts  but apparently with no pain.

For a start we are going to have no changes to the tax credits – yet there is going to be a change to the new universal credit which will replace a whole series of benefits. So the government will still be cutting the welfare bill by £12 billion. No details yet but it will be sneaked through when the figures are announced much later, hitting another group. And he is proposing to sell 20 per cent of the Department of work and Pensions estate- selling off  Jobcentres and benefit offices.

The NHS is getting more money but will have to make £22 billion of efficiency savings and provide a 7 day a week service. How? No details.

The police may not get their budget cut but the budget is not protected against inflation which is expected to start rising – so there is a hidden cuts inside this announcement.

And  the government claimed it had protected the science budget – but within hours engineers were announcing that a major demonstration project into carbon capture – which could save some coal fired power stations from closure – had been cancelled.

And both the extra money for defence and spending by HM Revenue and Customs – on equipment and tackling tax evasion- is going to be financed by axing thousands of civilian jobs in defence and closing down almost all local tax offices.

And while there is a £600m fund for mental health inside the NHS many voluntary organisations looking after the mentally ill and handicapped will be hit by the huge cut in local government funding.

There is more privatisation on the way – the rest of air traffic control, ordnance Survey and the Land Registry.

So what looks like a series of good announcements are often little more than smoke and mirrors. And in this budget it will depend more than most on the small print hidden in government announcements. Journalists are often fooled into first believing the initial message only to find it starts to unravel over the next few weeks when the policy bites. This is a Caveat Emptor Spending Review- buyer beware.