Northern Ireland news

Fraud and error of housing benefit administered by LPS increased in past year

Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller and Auditor General

LEVELS of housing benefit fraud and error have increased, an audit report has found.

Almost £35 million was administered by Land and Property Services (LPS) in 2020/21 to claimants who own their own home but who are on low income and suffering financial hardship.

The levels of fraud and error, which are estimated by the Department for Communities Standards Assurance Unit, amounted to a total of £4.2 million, representing 12.1 per cent of total housing benefit expenditure. This is a 1.5 per cent increase compared to the 10.6 per cent recorded in 2019/20.

While there has been a decrease in the levels of customer fraud, levels of official error have increased to £2m, from £1.5m the previous year.

The details were revealed by Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland's Comptroller and Auditor General.

"I recognise that over a number of years LPS has made considerable efforts to improve fraud and error rates," said Mr Donnelly.

"However, overpayments due to official error have more than doubled since 2019.

"While I am sympathetic to the unique and challenging circumstances LPS faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in 20/21, I am concerned at this significant increase in error."

The report also reveals that in 2020/21, LPS administered £7.1m of rate rebate for claimants in receipt of universal credit.

LPS estimated the amount of fraud in error within these transactions to be 9.7 per cent - an increase from 7.2 per cent the previous year.

Mr Donnelly said he would keep the matter "under consideration in light of increased numbers of claimants becoming eligible for the rate rebate scheme in the future".

This increase is anticipated as a result of claimants due to migrate to universal credit from other benefit types, as well as new claimants, particularly due to the impact of Covid-19.

The report also highlights that the numbers of outstanding non-domestic valuations has increased with 8,868 cases outstanding, as well as a rise in the number of domestic cases outstanding.

The estimated impact on the rate revenue figure of the outstanding case-load in March last year was £10.6m - an increase of £2.7m from March 2020.

The level of ratepayer debt also increased to £152.7m from £124.4m, while debt written off was £5.1m and impaired debt, which is unlikely to be repaid in full, was £51.8m.

The significant increase of ratepayer debt is due to LPS's suspension of legal recovery action in 2020/21 due to restricted access to the courts service, another consequence of the pandemic.

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