PAC unimpressed with Benefits Agency excuses

25 May 00
The Public Accounts Committee has rapped the former head of the Benefits Agency for his 'poor excuses' to taxpayers over inaccurate Jobseekers Allowance payments totalling £245.3m.

26 May 2000

Peter Mathison told the PAC on May 22 that the figures for 1998/99 were high because staff had failed to prove to the National Audit Office that many claimants were eligible for the payments.

He blamed the pressure on the service from the introduction of the New Deal and Welfare to Work programmes. Problems had been caused by inexperienced staff who were asked to make claimants sign declarations saying they were entitled to benefit – but were not told how important it was to keep the records.

Committee member Gerry Steinberg rejected the explanation, saying: 'You are dealing with taxpayers' money, and saying staff didn't know what to do isn't a very good excuse.'

Interim results from benefit reviews in 1997 and 1998 suggest that fraud could total as much as £1.53bn a year, and Steinberg expressed dismay that the agency's four-year-old strategy to combat the problem had not been more successful. Although the agency had met earlier targets, it delivered savings of only £1,141m in 1998/99 – £640m short of its target.

When asked what could be done to improve the performance of the agency, Mathison recommended greater investment in technology and staff training. 'A commercial organisation would invest in these areas.' He added: 'At the risk of upsetting Treasury colleagues, it still seems a big bun fight in terms of getting funding.'


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