A lack of routine checks by social welfare staff during the Covid-19 pandemic meant there was likely a “significant” number of people claiming the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) who were not entitled to the support.
A report by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG), the State’s spending watchdog, said the continued suspension of normal controls and checks on social welfare payments last year increased the “risk” of fraud or incorrect payments.
The Department of Social Protection spent €8.7 billion last year on four schemes introduced to support people who were affected by the pandemic, such as the PUP for those who lost their jobs. The PUP scheme cost €4 billion last year and €5 billion in 2020, the report said.
The portion of payments covered by random checks to test if people were entitled to welfare claims fell from 87 per cent in 2019 to 54 per cent last year.
The Department told the C&AG that the onset of the pandemic led to unprecedented demand, leading to checks being scaled back in 2020.
The report said limits on checks of the schemes continued into 2021, while some progress was made in “reinstating controls or utilising alternative methods on some schemes”.
A review of a random 219 PUP claims last year found that in about 8 per cent of cases the individual was “not eligible for the payment”, said the watchdog.
In two-thirds of these cases, the individual was working while also claiming the PUP, while in the remaining third evidence suggested the claimant had not been working prior to claiming the payment.
A further review of 53 claims from those on the PUP who declared they had been self-employed found in a “significant” number of cases there was a lack of evidence to prove the person had lost work.
The C&AG report said due to the huge amount of expenditure by the department, “even a small incidence of error and/or suspected fraud can result in a large monetary loss to the Exchequer”.
The report also noted that a department review of jobseekers allowance payments earlier this year found 7.9 per cent of people were receiving more than they were entitled to under the scheme, a rate which it said was high.
“The available evidence points to a material incidence of payments in excess of the entitlements of claimants under many welfare schemes,” the report said.
“An increase in the number of control surveys completed is required to ensure that there is adequate coverage of scheme expenditure in future years,” it recommended.
The report noted that in response the department had committed to ensure there were more checks on payments in future years.