A damning loss of control of Universal Credit payments has meant that the Department for Work and Pensions has received a drubbing from the ministry’s auditors, the National Audit Office, and led to its accounts being qualified for 33rd year in succession.
While the ministry has been praised for its swift response to the pandemic by uplifting Universal Credit by £20 a week and coping with a doubling of people on the benefit, the grim costs to the ministry’s finances are revealed in its annual report.
Overpayments on Universal Credit have skyrocketed, criminal gangs have targeted business payments and the ministry has had to set aside £1 billion to pay 132,000 pensioners who have been underpaid their pensions for up to 30 years.
A new problem of identity theft of some 5000 claimants has also hit Universal Credit leaving some claimants losing benefit for weeks.
Overpayments hit record £8.3 billion
DWP estimates it overpaid £8.3 billion of the £111.4 billion that it spent on benefits in 2020-21, an increase of £3.8 billion on the previous year. The rate of overpayments increased from 4.4% in 2019-20 to 7.5% in 2020-21. Nearly all of the increase in fraud and error was on Universal Credit. DWP estimates it overpaid £5.5 billion of Universal Credit (14.5%) and underpaid £540 million (1.4%).
The NAO reports: “DWP has identified four key fraud and error risks within Universal Credit that it needs to tackle, as they are the largest causes of fraud and error. It is looking to improve controls over incorrectly reported self-employment earnings, savings, living arrangements and housing costs. It has also identified several organised criminal attacks during the pandemic, with fraudsters targeting Universal Credit in particular and making claims in other people’s names.
The Department is owed £5 billion of overpayments, placing additional strain on its resources and potentially causing uncertainty and hardship to claimants. It is not sure how much of its estimated loss of £8.4 billion in 2020-21 it will recover, as it has attempted to recover only 10% of the estimated loss in the last 5 years.”
The ministry is now having to bring in more staff to sort out the fraudulent claims and a criminal investigation has been launched.
On the underpayment of pensions the ministry has promised to pay the people by the end of next year.
The NAO report says: “The Department commissioned a root cause analysis to understand the cause of these underpayments. This analysis identified a range of process and control issues including poor staff training, instructions and quality review that led to the underpayments. These issues have also affected the Department’s initial work to quantify and rectify errors. The Department has asked the Government Internal Audit Agency to review State Pension legislation to ensure there are no further entitlements that may be underpaid.”
“The impact of this underpayment on the individual pensioners is significant, and it is vital the Department learns lessons to avoid systemic underpayments in the future and correct past underpayments.”
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said:
“I am concerned that the level of fraud and error in the benefits system continues to increase year on year, now reaching its highest level since records began. This has a real impact on public funds and on those who face deductions to their income due to overpayments.
“I recognise that the pandemic and the resulting surge in the number of claimants has increased DWP’s exposure to fraud and error. It must now review all cases that could have been subject to fraud during this time, whilst continuing to progress our past recommendations on how to reduce fraud and error.”