Benefit fraud exposed

BENEFIT payment foul-ups are overpaying claimants to the tune of £1million a year, the Evening Star can reveal today.One pensioner has spent years defrauding the system, totting up a debt of nearly £100,000 which cannot be recovered because he is terminally ill.

BENEFIT payment foul-ups mean claimants in Ipswich are getting an extra £1million a year, The Evening Star can reveal today.

One pensioner has spent years defrauding the system, totting up a debt of nearly £100,000 which cannot be recovered because he is terminally ill.

The system is so flawed the government automatically shells out about a third of the annual overpayment because it accepts it is not Ipswich Borough Council's fault.

Nearly £200,000 is still outstanding from innacurate payments in 2002/03 and more than £150,000 from the previous year.

The council says, however, this is a relatively small proportion of the £33million total benefit payment in the year.

Council chiefs accept that most of that money is gone forever. Those who owe the council are either too poor to pay up or too difficult to find.

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But councillors are today set to discuss new ways of getting more of the money back.

The main weapon at their disposal is a plan to raise the amount taken back from people on income support by just 60p a week.

Councillor Martin Cook is leading the drive towards the new model. While he admitted more needs to be done, he defended the council's record.

He said: "On the face of it, it seems a large figure, but it's relatively small compared to the total amount paid out.

"We would prefer to improve that amount in the first place, because it's not good for anyone to pay out more than we should."

Mr Cook admitted sluggish council processing meant money was often paid out long after it should have been stopped or lowered. And he promised more work to improve efficiency as well as increasing attempts to reclaim lost cash.

But a report compiled by council officers said trying too hard to get back overpaid money could end up costing even more.

The report also admits the backfiring benefits system "directly affects the financial well-being of the people of Ipswich".

Government inspectors labeled the council's debt recovery operation "poor" after revealing only a third of recoverable over-payments are returned in the year they are incurred.

Top ranking authorities in other parts of the country regularly rake in twice the paltry amount collected in Ipswich.

The council's own figures show officers are in the process of tracking nearly £600,000 that has gone unrecovered since 2000. An additional £100,000 has already been written off.

The report to be discussed by councillors today, at a meeting of the council's executive committee suggests more may be wiped off the books in future.

It warns trying to force those on limited incomes to pay up could leave them homeless, costing the council more than the debt owed.

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