Almost 35,000 pensioners and other welfare recipients are making weekly repayments to the Department of Social Protection after it was discovered they were overpaid sometime in the past — in one case as far back as 31 years ago.
The majority of people, 31,870, are paying back an average of €21.80 per week by way of deductions from their benefits in deals struck with the department.
However, 2,800 people who did not reach agreement with the department are having their weekly payments forcibly cut by 15%, the maximum the department can legally deduct without consent. That averages a loss of €29 per week.
Most of those overpayments occurred in recent years with about 12% of them going back before 2010.
The oldest case, however, involves overpayments dating back to 1986.
The sums recovered by the department through these deductions has increased significantly in recent years, from €53.4m in 2012 to €82m last year.
Overpayments are also clawed back from wages, savings, and the estates of dead people. Recovery from estates has increased too, with €18.8m recovered last year compared to €12m in 2012. The estates of 386 people were targeted last year with €48,700 the average sum recovered.
High-profile publicity campaigns run by the department in recent times have sought to harden public opinion against welfare fraud.
Ombudsman Peter Tyndall, however, has expressed concern that the department may be overzealous in pursuing people who were overpaid as a result of mistakes by its staff which would not have been obvious to recipients. He said he had raised his concerns with the department, which is now preparing a guidance manual for its staff.
By Caroline O’Doherty
Senior Reporter Irish Examiner