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Years of mistakes: How the Department of Social Protection mishandled social welfare overpayments

Some overpayments have not been recovered because of a litany of mistakes by the Department of Employment and Social Protection.

Image: Wanderley Massafelli/RollingNews.ie

THE DEPARTMENT OF Employment Affairs and Social Protection chased a number of people for allegedly receiving social welfare overpayments, but were later forced to drop the cases due to the department’s own repeated failings and mistakes.

A report, published today by the Office of the Ombudsman, identifies a number of failings in relation to “overpayment decisions, records and processes” for social welfare claimants. 

In some cases identified by the Ombudsman Peter Tyndall, the failings were so serious that the department had to either reduce the debt repayments or cancel the debt altogether. 

As part of an investigation, which began in March 2016, Tyndall’s office found that in a number of cases, the ombudsman found that the decision to pursue people who has been overpaid was “questionable”.

In 33 randomly selected cases of social welfare overpayment debt, almost 50% were identified as having concerns that “cast doubt on the department’s justification in recovering the overpayments raised against the claimants”. 

Many of the department’s files, the report found, lacked documentation relating to the decision made against the claimant, as well as the reasons for the decision. 

Department files also lacked a record of the claimant’s agreement or arguments against the decision. 

In other files, the department failed to record how overpayment charges were calculated or to note the meetings or correspondence with claimants. 

“While the Department must be allowed to recover payments in appropriate cases, these must be dealt with in a fair and equitable manner. That did not happen in a significant number of cases I have seen,” Tyndall said. 

Between 2015 and 2018, the Ombudsman received 108 complaints from people who were unhappy about how the Department was pursuing overpayments. 

Forty-five per cent of these complaints were upheld. 

The investigation also found that the department too often failed to consider whether the decision to recover overpayments could force a social welfare claimant into poverty.

The report also noted:

Many of the case files reviewed did not contain evidence that claimants were informed of their right of appeal when they were notified of the revised decision in their case.

These failings meant that in a number of cases the Department was forced to drop attempts to recover overpayments. 

In 2017, the government ran a campaign called “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All” and claimed to have saved €500 million as a result of benefit fraud reporting. But a factcheck by TheJournal.ie deemed this claim false. 

New reforms have been introduced in response to the critical report – a call centre has been set up to deal with calls from people facing overpayment debt, while the department has also updated its processes for communicating with claimants. 

“Unsound and unfair”

In 2016 a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General found that annual overpayments reached between €100-120 million, with the level of outstanding overpayment debt at €482 million. 

Almost 192,000 people were responsible for this debt. 

Yet the Ombudsman’s investigation found that in a number of cases the department had mishandled people’s debt cases. 

In a number of cases, the department failed to properly inform social welfare claimants that they’d been overpaid or had old debts – this mean people faced huge and expected bills years after the original overpayment.

In one case, a man was told in 2016 about an overpayment that dated all the back to the 1990s. The man said that he had been told about the overpayment and that to repay it in 2016 would cause “financial hardship”. 

The department was unable to explain to the man how the overpayment was calculated or how it arose in the first place.

“During my Office’s examination of the complaint the Department acknowledged that it could not locate any documentation about the man. It had no records about the overpayment”, the report states. 

This led to the overpayment being cancelled. 

In another case, a man was told he owed €17,000 dating back to 1999 to 2000. He was not informed of this debt. 

When he asked for his file under the Freedom of Information Act, the department told him that his file had been “purged”.

“The Department accepted that failing to send debt reminders to debtors represents unsound and unfair administrative practice. It has introduced a process for sending debt reminders to customers and former customers annually,” according to the report.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for the Department said it welcomed the Ombudsman’s report, adding that overpayments occur “in a small percentage of cases”. 

“The recovery of overpayments is a key part of the control work of the Department and the processes and procedures it employs are kept under ongoing review. 

“This is to ensure that they are fair and equittable and follow best practice in debt management whilst ensuring that they do not create inequity and hardship.”

It also said that in recent recent years it reviewed its debt management policies and procedures, and contact with the Ombudsman’s office had “helped the Department to improve its overall approach”. 

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