Mr Robin Swann, the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman and member of the Stormont Public Accounts Committee, has called on the DUP Communities Minister “to give a cast iron guarantee that those who are rightfully entitled to benefits and other much-needed support will receive those payments as soon as possible and there will be no feet-dragging on the issue”.
Assemblyman Swann, who is also UUP Chief Whip and North Antrim UUP Chairman, was responding after challenging the Minister in a Stormont question to outline the programmes in place to ensure people receive benefits to which they are entitled.
Responding to Assemblyman Swann, the Minister said: “I am committed to ensuring that those people who have rightful entitlement are receiving all the benefits and other supports and services that they are eligible for.
“Since 2005, my Department has delivered benefit uptake programmes and, more recently, I launched the new three-year strategic plan, ‘Supporting People – Maximising Income through the Uptake of Benefits’ which has a vision to ensure that every individual and household across Northern Ireland is receiving all the social security benefits to which they and their families are entitled.
“Over the next three years, we plan to target 100,000 people with the offer of a full benefit entitlement check and secure at least £40 million in additional benefits.
“We have a number of approaches to meet these targets, including writing out to older people who are not in receipt of certain benefits; the Make the Call advertising campaign; roadshows held in local communities to promote the uptake of benefits; a team of community outreach officers who will visit the vulnerable in their homes to assist in making a claim to benefits; and partnership working across government, the wider public sector and the voluntary and community sector.
“We will be extending these programmes to ensure that support is available for people who wish to claim personal independence payment (PIP) or who are impacted by other welfare changes. Between 2013 and 2016, under its previous three-year plan, ‘Maximising Incomes & Outcomes: A 3 Year Plan for Improving the Uptake of Benefits, this generated over £48 million for over 13,000 people,” the Minister told Mr Swann.
This prompted Mr Swann to probe the Minister asking: “Equally important to targeting people who need benefits and are in receipt of them is to make sure that those who are not entitled to them do not get them.
“He may be aware that up to £800,000 was paid to prisoners between 2011 and 2014 and, since the system’s upgrade, that data is no longer kept. What steps is he taking to recoup that money or make sure that it is not paid out incorrectly?”
Mr Swann’s probing question got the following response from the Minister: “The Member raises an important issue that I have touched on before, which is the amount of investment that we put in for detecting fraud and error – often, there can be error in the system.
“There is significant investment put into that team who proactively go after benefits that have been paid incorrectly or, indeed, fraudulently. Where that has taken place and whatever examples are drawn to my attention, such as those prisoners, I expect that, if any benefit is received in error or fraudulently, that money should be recouped,” the Minister told Assemblyman Swann.