Almost 20,000 on pandemic payment called to welfare offices to sign on

Close to a tenth of claims ineligible for Covid-19 benefit, review finds

Almost 20,000 people have been asked to attend social welfare offices for interviews after a review found nearly one in 10 pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) claims were ineligible for the Covid-19 payment.

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) last month said that in just under half of the sample cases reviewed where individuals were not eligible to claim the PUP, they had been receiving the payment while still working.

Almost €9 billion has been paid out under the PUP scheme, which was introduced in the early weeks of the pandemic as an economic blanket for hundreds of thousands of workers forced out of employment when businesses were closed down “in the extraordinary and exceptional circumstances” of Covid-19.

Within three weeks, more than 500,000 people were receiving the €350 weekly benefit. Just over 100,000 people are still in receipt of the payment.


Ongoing checks

Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys said that checks are carried out whenever applications are submitted and on an ongoing basis.

Last year, more than 70,000 reviews were conducted, including 52,000 by her department’s special investigation unit, and some 22,800 recipients were cut off.

Last June, 6,000 claimants were “requested to attend offices to sign on”, the Minister said, adding that this exercise is “currently being repeated”.

However, following the C&AG’s review, the number of recipients being asked to attend in person has more than tripled to almost 20,000.

The C&AG’s review found that in a quarter of cases the claimant had not been working before the pandemic and, in a further 25 per cent of cases, they had returned to work.

Ms Humphreys noted the C&AG’s finding that some recipients would have been entitled to a different benefit if they had not received the PUP “so that the net overpayment rate was probably lower”.

In a Dáil parliamentary question, Independent TD Cathal Berry asked how the money would be recouped.

“If we find people who knowingly abused the PUP, we will apply the full rigours of the law against them,” Ms Humphreys replied, adding that the Garda has already acted on a number of cases.

The Department of Social Protection received 1.75 million applications for the pandemic payment between March 2020 and February 2021, more than half of them within the first five weeks of the scheme being opened.

The report said the scheme was launched on an “emergency basis”, and therefore officials said controls “would not be as rigorous as that normally applied”.

This meant the risk of possible overpayments “would be higher than normal”, and this was “unavoidable given the high volume of claims to be processed”.

The auditor’s report said that people who previously had relatively lower earnings “were significantly better off when claiming the PUP”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times