75 dead people being paid pensions with auditor warning fraud isn’t victimless

5000 blue badges were matched against death records in the past two years.
5000 blue badges were matched against death records in the past two years.

Seventy-five dead Northern Irish people were still being paid public pensions until a fraud trawl discovered the anomalies, which contributed to a pensions overpayments bill of £3.3million over the past two years.

The Northern Ireland Auditor Kieran Donnelly, in a new report containing the figures, which was published on Tuesday (June 17), writes that: “Fraud is NOT a victimless crime - we all pay the price.”

The Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) report also exposes the fact that between April 2012 and April 2014, there were over five thousand matches between blue badge holders and death records.

The NIAO explains that this doesn’t necessarily mean the passes - which authorise parking concessions for people with severe mobility problems - were all being used fraudulently, but the report points out that the potential for abuse was there.

The 5,000 badges have now been cancelled by the Department of Regional Development (DRD) as have 10,000 concessionary travel passes, which were also matched to death records.

The ‘National Fraud Initiative (NFI): Northern Ireland’ report is the result of a major data matching exercise undertaken every two years, which enables public audit agencies in the United Kingdom, to participate in cross-jurisdictional data matching for the purposes of identifying fraud, error and overpayment.

The report is the third such exercise completed in Northern Ireland.

Over 100 bodies across the public sector here participated, including Derry City Council, the Western Education and Library Board (WELB), the Western Health and Social Care Trust (WHSCT) and the North West Regional College (NWRC).

The report reveals that between April 2012 and March 2014 over £5.5m in overpayments - through fraud or error - were identified.

For example, Housing Benefit fraud and overpayments amounted to over £1.6million, with a number of successful prosecutions arising.

Over 60 cases of rates evasion were identified leading to outcomes of over £350,000. And duplicate and erroneous payments to suppliers amounted to just over £102,000 in outcomes.

The largest fraud discovered, however, related to pension overpayments. The NIAO cites a number of examples.

One relates to a pensioner, who died in November 2011, but the pension body was not notified, only becoming aware of the death through an NFI data match.

This fraud resulted in an overpayment of £3,500, which the NIAO says is now being repaid by the next of kin.

Another data match in February 2013 showed the date of death as having actually occurred in February 2012.

The pension paying body - the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) in this instance - contacted the family and received a declaration of entitlement in March 2013, allegedly signed by the pensioner.

However, the pension paying body made further enquiries and received a copy of the death certificate from the General Register Office (GRO).

Fraud was suspected and, following further investigation, the pensioner’s son was found guilty of fraud in February 2014.

The overpayment in this case amounted to £3,300 and this is currently being pursued for recovery by the police.

Examples of pensioners returning to work and continuing to receive superannuation overpayments are also cited.

For instance, a local government pensioner failed to notify a pension paying body that they had become re-employed in the same sector.

Overpayments amounted to £10,700. This is now being repaid in instalments.

A similar case - uncovered by the Department of Education - discovered another instance of re-employment and an overpayment of £12,000. Recovery is apparently ongoing.

The second biggest area where fraud was discovered was in Housing Benefits.

Over 30,000 Housing Benefit matches were identified across the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and the rates office (Land and Property Services).

There were, in total, 350 cases of fraud or error and £1.6m in recoverable overpayments identified.

In one instance a public sector worker was caught working whilst fraudulently claiming Housing Benefit and Income Support. The overpayments cost £43,000 over six years.

The person was sentenced to a year in jail, suspended for two years.

Another public sector worker was caught fraudulently over-claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance, Income Support and Housing Benefit amounting to £46,000 over an eight year period.

The individual was sentenced to 18 months jail, suspended for three years.

Meanwhile, a homeowner was caught claiming Housing Benefit whilst failing to declare a former employment pension. When this was taken into account they were ineligible for the benefit. Four thousand pounds is now being recovered.

Another homeowner is repaying £3,200 in Housing Benefit after failing to declare employment income.

As mentioned above the total amount of recoverable overpayments identified for the two year period stood at a considerable £5,535,255.

However, over three NFI trawls to date - the first focusing on the period 2008 to 2010 - an incredible £29,572,457 in outcomes was identified.

This refers to actual fraud, error and overpayments relating to Housing Benefit, pensions, rates, creditors, payroll and private supported care home residents.

Mr Donnelly said: “Every public sector body has a duty to demonstrate a zero tolerance to fraud and to play its part in challenging those who seek to commit fraud.

“The results speak for themselves, with outcomes from the first three NFIs in Northern Ireland of almost £30m.

“This success relies on the commitment and effort of all participating organisations, and I commend all those involved in the review and investigation of data matches for the essential work that they do.”

In a foreword to the report itself, Mr Donnelly writes: “Fraud continues to be a threat, and indeed a reality, which diverts public funds away from the provision of goods and services.

“As the tough economic climate continues, fighting fraud must remain an urgent priority. Every public sector body has a duty to demonstrate a zero tolerance to fraud and to play its part in challenging those who seek to commit fraud against the public sector. Fraud is NOT a victimless crime - we all pay the price.”