The Department for Work and Pensions needs to "get a grip" on record levels of fraud and error in the benefits system and take responsibility for tackling the "eye-watering" sums, the Public Accounts Committee has warned.
DWP’s 2021-22 accounts, released in July, showed the department had overpaid a record £8.5 bn in benefits, excluding state pension. The department estimates £6.5 bn of that overpayment was due to fraud. PAC's report on fraud and error in the benefits system said overpayments were “unacceptably high”. DWP has attributed the record levels of overpayments to the relaxation of fraud and error controls during the Covid-19 pandemic and an increase in fraud in society.
But Dame Meg Hillier, chair of PAC, accused the department of passing the buck. “DWP is blaming everything from the pandemic to ills in wider society for unprecedented and wholly unacceptable levels of fraud in the benefits system,” she said. PAC said the department's narrative about fraud in society “could encourage a complacent attitude toward unprecedented and unacceptable levels of benefit fraud” and mean people “come to see committing benefit fraud as normal”.
DWP also needs to strike the right balance between being robust in tackling fraud and ensuring claimants are treated fairly, the MPs said. The committee pointed out that the department has assumed all claims from Universal Credit where claimants choose “not to engage” with the department's fraud and error measurement exercises were fraudulent, but that DWP also admitted that it has no statistically significant information to support this view.
PAC also criticised high levels of underpayments in the state pension system – 237,000 pensioners have been underpaid a total of £1.5 bn in the last 37 years, the department has estimated. Work to fix this is behind schedule, delayed by a year to the end of 2024. PAC said the department’s efforts are “too slow to meaningfully put things right”, and “too little, too late for many affected pensioners”.