Benefit overpayments are at their highest ever estimated rate, and the quick response and focus on ensuring prompt payments for new benefit claimants during the COVID-19 pandemic means fraud and error are likely to further increase.1

Excluding State Pension, where the level of fraud and error is very low, the estimated level of benefit overpayments increased to 4.8% (£4.5 billion) from 4.4% (£3.7 billion) in 2018-19. For Universal Credit, the estimated rate of overpayments increased from 8.7% to 9.4%, which is the highest recorded rate for any benefit other than Tax Credits.

The Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office, Gareth Davies, has qualified his opinion on the regularity of the Department for Work and Pensions’ 2019-20 financial statements due to this level of fraud and error. This is the 32nd year that the DWP’s accounts have received a qualified regularity opinion on this basis.

Benefit payments are susceptible to both deliberate fraud and unintended error by claimants and the DWP. Overpayments increase costs for taxpayers, and when the DWP recovers overpayments, this can lead to problems for claimants who face deductions from their income. Underpayments can mean that households do not get the support they are entitled to.

The most common cause of fraud and error is incorrectly reported income, which led to £1.4 billion of overpayments and £350 million of underpayments in 2019-20. People incorrectly reporting their savings is now the second most common cause of fraud and error, at a value of £910 million.

The DWP responded quickly to the large increase in new benefit claims during the COVID-19 pandemic,2 redeploying staff and relaxing controls to allow it to focus on ensuring that claimants got the money to which they are entitled.3 The DWP recognises that these actions are likely to increase fraud and error in 2020-21; staff referred 143,000 suspicious cases for investigation between 16 March and 5 June. The impact of these changes to controls will provide DWP with valuable insight to support future decision making on tackling fraud and error.

Due to COVID-19, the DWP anticipates that it will not be able to review cases to produce an estimate of fraud and error in 2020-21 in the usual way. Visits cannot take place to support reviews and staff have been temporarily allocated to higher priority work. The DWP will need to determine how else it can assess fraud and error to ensure it remains accountable to Parliament for its performance.

As a priority, the DWP should set out its plans to reverse the temporary changes made to the administration of benefits in response to COVID-19, and provide an assessment of the impact of these changes on the level of fraud and error. It should also clarify how it will measure fraud and error for 2020-21 and in the longer term. Looking further ahead, it should set annual fraud and error targets by individual benefit so that it can demonstrate the progress of its initiatives.

“I am concerned that fraud and error in benefit payments have risen again. Fraud and error have a real cost, both for those who face deductions from their income due to overpayments and because it reduces the public funds available for other purposes.   “As the Department takes on a set of unprecedented challenges arising from COVID-19 it is more important than ever that my qualification is not seen as business as usual and the Department responds in a cost-effective way to minimise risks of fraud and error.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO

Read the full report

Department for Work and Pensions annual report and accounts 2019-20

Notes for editors

  1. The benefits sampled to produce the estimates and some aspects of the underlying methodology have changed over time. The Department revised some aspects of its methodology in 2019-20 which led to a reduction in the overall 2018-19 overpayment estimates when these were restated. Underpayments were also restated, although the overall rate remained unchanged.
  2. There was a large spike in the number of new claims for Universal Credit as the main working-age benefit. The Department’s provisional statistics show that as at February 2020, there were 2.6 million households on Universal Credit. From 1 March to 26 May 2020, the DWP received 2.4 million new claims to Universal Credit, with a peak of over 100,000 a day. This has since reduced to less than twice the average daily level of new claims before the peak. Other benefits, such as New Style JSA and ESA, have also seen increases in claims over this period.
  3. For example, claimants no longer have to attend a job centre for a face-to-face interview.
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website.
  5. The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it use its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services.
  6. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and report on the value for money of how public money has been spent.
  7. In 2019, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £1.1 billion.

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