Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment
2. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the extent to which the pandemic unemployment payment was paid to ineligible recipients; the way she plans to recoup this funding; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48673/21]
I compliment the Minister, her predecessor, Senator Regina Doherty, and her very kind staff in the Department of Social Protection who administered the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, programme. It has been a revolutionary programme and a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people. It is one of the reasons we have almost beaten the pandemic and the virus. Last week, the Comptroller and Auditor General identified a few anomalies in the scheme. I would be grateful if the Minister will make a statement on that.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Within three weeks of the PUP being launched, more than 500,000 people were in payment. In the initial two months to the end of April, my Department processed some 900,000 claims. The delivery of the scheme on such a scale and in such a short time represented a major achievement by my Department.
The recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General found that approximately 9.4% of claims awarded at different points in time during 2020 did not comply with the strict conditions of the scheme. However, he also noted that some of these claimants would have been entitled to another payment if they did not receive the PUP, so that the net overpayment rate was probably lower.
He also noted that the Department's observations that excluding periods when there was a high level of churn when restrictions were being imposed or relaxed, the gross overpayment rate was approximately 6%. It was not out of line with working age social welfare schemes generally. We would, of course, have preferred if there were no overpayment, but my Department always has to strike a balance between applying tight controls and checks on claims on the one hand and not frustrating a person's entitlement to a payment on the other. This was particularly the case in the extraordinary and exceptional circumstances of Covid-19. Applying normal controls would have meant very long delays in processing the unprecedented number of claims received, which would have led to severe financial hardship for many people and undermined the sense of social solidarity necessary to sustain the public health restrictions and combat the virus.
Notwithstanding those concerns, a range of controls were implemented and have continued to be enhanced over the past 18 months, including, for example, matching against Revenue records. The matching exercise is proving effective in early detection of cases of people working while claiming the PUP.
I thank the Minister and agree entirely with the principle of her response. That is exactly what the Department of Social Protection should be for. It should be there to provide a safety net and safety blanket when required. I remember processing many claims to the Department and they were dealt with expeditiously and humanely.
I appreciate that the Comptroller and Auditor General took a small sample of the applicants and claims that were made. Is there a plan to do a deeper dive, a wider and more comprehensive audit within the Department, or are we going to draw a line under it and move on? Is there going to be a further audit or will there be no more investigation into this matter?
I thank the Deputy. As part of the claims approval process, claims were checked to ensure the claimant had a valid personal public service, PPS, number and other identity details. Checks were carried out whenever applications were submitted. In 2020, over 52,000 reviews were carried out by the Department's special investigation unit, with over 17,000 claims closed, while a further 19,400 reviews were carried out by other departmental staff, with approximately 5,800 claims closed. Claimants were asked to confirm their eligibility on a number of occasions through online declarations in July 2020 and July 2021. All claimants were asked to confirm their eligibility and in March 2021, 122,000 individuals who were in payment since March 2020 were also asked to confirm their eligibility.
In June this year, 6,000 claimants were requested to attend offices to sign on and this exercise is currently being repeated with almost 20,000 claimants currently being invited to attend offices. Regular checks against Revenue records are being made.
That is great. That is reassuring information. I think the appropriate balance was struck between proper checks and controls, on the one hand, and proper humanity, on the other. That is important.
The figures the Minister called out at the start of her response were staggering. Some 500,000 people had their claims processed over a three-week period. Those are incredible numbers. The Minister did not mention one particular statistic today, although she mentioned it in the media yesterday. Probably the most important statistic is that only approximately 100,000 people are still in receipt of the PUP. The trend is going in the right direction, which is also reassuring.
I am satisfied that the appropriate balance was struck, which is good. The PUP has served its purpose. I look forward to it ending completely because that will mean we have seen the back of the pandemic and we hope such a payment will not be required again. The PUP served its purpose. The health service tackled the virus head-on, while the Department of Social Protection tackled it indirectly and that is the reason we are in this good place now.
I thank the Deputy for his kind words about the Department. Everybody in this House agrees that the Department did a Trojan job to get those payments out so quickly and efficiently. Almost €9 billion has been paid out and over 27 million payments have issued. That support is unprecedented. It was an emergency payment at a time of national crisis. If we find people who knowingly abused the PUP, we will apply the full rigours of the law against them. The media have reported on a number of cases in which the Garda has got involved.
I again thank all the staff in the social protection offices the length and breadth of the country. I, of course, believe they were major workers who provided front-line services.