Have prisoners been paid £20 million in benefits by mistake?

17 December 2012

The Mail on Sunday: "Scandal of prisoners paid £20 million in benefits by mistake"

The Express: "£100m paid in benefits to prisoners"

[Also in The Sun and Telegraph]

A Freedom of Information request on how much benefit was wrongly paid to people in prison caused a flurry of headlines over the weekend. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released statistics on the amount of benefits overpaid to prisoners, along with the value of benefits recovered.

After a few sums on the calculator, newspapers concluded that the overpayments had cost the taxpayer around £18-£20 million from 2007-2011. But to what extent did the newspapers interpret these figures accurately?   

Benefits and prisons

Before we begin to assess the accuracy of the headlines, are offenders entitled to benefits while in prison? 

The short answer is no. According to Gov.uk, entitlement to benefits stops for those in prison or in remand. Housing benefits for shorter sentences and help with council tax may continue, however offenders would not be able to claim if they are likely to be on remand for more than 52 weeks or likely to be in prison for more than 13 weeks.

The figures

In its response to the Freedom of Information (FOI) request, the DWP provides a breakdown of the "amount of benefit identified as being overpaid" from 2006/07 to the present day. The 'value of new debts' is the "amount of benefit identified as being overpaid".  

The reports looked at the amount of overpayment from 2007 and 2011. If we approximate this by taking overpayments from 2007/08 to 2010/11, the total is just over £32.3 million. The data doesn't give any clues as to where the "£31.7 million" might come from, even if slightly different years are used for comparison.

Here are the figures for the amounts overpaid by the DWP because recipients were in prison:

[YTD = year to date]

Overpayments have also seen a slow but downward trend since 2007 from a peak of £8.8 million to £6.5 million last year.

What was the amount of benefits which the DWP recovered? The breakdown for the "value of recoveries on debts with an overpayment reason of 'in prison'" shows that from 2007/08 to 2010/11, the amount of overpayment the DWP recovered was £12.7 million. Again, the newspapers' figure of £13.1 million figure doesn't show up in any obvious calculation.

By our estimates, the shortfall between overpayments and recoveries totals some £19.5 million from the financial years starting 2007 and ending 2011.

For the The Mail on Sunday to say that "only £13.1 million has ever been recovered" isn't right - this only refers to the four years chosen by the newspaper. The figures show that  £18.3 million has been recouped between the years provided in the data, and we can expect more to have been recouped before and since.

The Express' claim that prisoners have "Over the past 20 years, the total could be £100million." is most likely a simple calculation that assumes the £4.65 million a year shortfall caused by overpayments and small recoveries is simply multiplied by 20. There isn't any evidence from this information that this is a safe extrapolation to make. 


There are some slight inconsistencies with the newspapers' calculations, however they do broadly represent the data.

It should be noted that the recovery of overpayments has increased over the years which include older overpayments. According to the DWP's response to the FOI, "some of the money recovered could relate to overpayments recorded in earlier years".  

A DWP spokesman said: "Prisoners are not entitled to benefits and we always seek to recover any overpayments. A more efficient system was brought in earlier this year to ensure that we are quickly informed when a benefit claimant is sent to prison and we can stop benefit payments immediately."

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