SDLP Communities Spokesperson Mark H Durkan has criticised Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey for her failure to address benefit overpayments arising due to official error within her department.
Figures requested by Mr Durkan revealed that the Department for Communities has requested £6.1 million from benefit claimants for overpayments due to official error during 2021/22.
The Foyle MLA commented:
“It’s unconscionable that amid a spiralling costs crisis the Department for Communities sees fit to place a further financial burden on already struggling households for overpayments which have been incurred through no fault of their own.
“The total amount of money recovered by the department within that same period for general overpayments was £21.8 million. That represents millions of pounds gleaned back from some of the worst off and most vulnerable households in our society. For families scraping by, worrying about putting food on the table or heating their homes, repayment of this money presents an added pressure.
“My office has been successfully challenging many of these overpayments, particularly with the Tax Credits team, even in cases which were not categorised as an official error. Many of these individuals had unsuccessfully appealed their decision but through intervention from my office these overpayments were waived. Challenging these decisions is fraught with difficulty and a process which elected representatives struggle to challenge never mind claimants.
“I appreciate that blame does not lie solely with the Minister although her failure to engage with counterparts in Westminster on this issue is completely unacceptable. In December 2021, the Department for Work and Pensions announced a colossal £510million package to tackle benefit fraud. I would be very interested to know how much the government has spent in an effort to eradicate official error within their own system. There are a small number of people abusing the system, however I believe the system is also abusing people.
“Where overpayments are concerned the onus to repay and rectify this issue lies with government departments and not vulnerable individuals, ultimately the innocent parties in these circumstances. Efforts need to be made to streamline services to prevent this situation arising in the first place but if it does, the appeals route needs to be accessible for all.”