In 2007 and 2008, €103m was lost in overpayments

THE state is paying out around €50m a year in illegitimate social-welfare payments and benefits across a multitude of categories. Payments have even been made to claimants who have died or been sent to prison.

Figures obtained by the Sunday Tribune reveal that in 2007 and 2008, €103m was lost through 'unwarranted' overpayment.

Recipients of these payments have been identified and it is hoped that much of the money can be recouped by the exchequer.

Instances of members of the public informing on welfare defrauders are on the increase, according to the latest figures.

In 2009, the Department of Social and Family Affairs received 6,400 reports from the public in relation to alleged fraudulent claims, compared to just 1,000 in 2008. And in the first three months of 2010, the figure stood at over 2,700 – just under half of the total for the previous year.

"This clearly shows that the public aren't willing to ignore this," said a department spokeswoman.

The greatest number of illegitimate claims related to those who were working and claiming benefits at the same time – between 2007 and 2008 more than €26m was paid out to such recipients.

In the same period, nearly €6m was paid to people who had passed away, €4.5m to people who had left the country and over €10m to those who had not declared their means or earnings.

Other categories where overpayments were made included people who were sent to prison but continued to be paid, people who claimed not to be fit to work, non-residents of households, people in residential care, individuals who claimed other people's benefits and even some who were paid due to simple computer errors.

Over the two years, nearly 95,000 individual cases of overpayments were identified by the government.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs said the level of fraud in social welfare payments was very low relative to the amount of money that flows through the system.

"Nonetheless, the department is conscious that in a small number of schemes, some groups of claimants present a higher risk than others and we have made changes to address this," it said in a statement.

According to the department, the more typical forms of fraud include a failure to disclose full details or a person's means, the true employment or residential status of a spouse or partner, claiming while at work, pretending to be unable to work or being absent from the state.

Those found guilty of social-welfare fraud in the district courts can be fined up to €1,500 and imprisoned for up to six months. More serious cases sent to the circuit courts can attract a fine of up to €13,000 and a prison sentence of up to three years.

The Small Firms Association (SFA) recently called for an amnesty on those who were claiming false benefits in order to restore the ­system.