By Steph Brawn and Annie Gouk

OVER £1 million of overpaid housing benefit is still outstanding in Inverclyde, new UK Government statistics show.

Data from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reveals £1.2m accidentally paid out to claimants by Inverclyde Council is yet to be recovered, as of the end of March this year.

Housing benefit is paid directly to landlords of people who are struggling to put a roof over their heads, and can also come in the form of rent reduction for council tenants.

It is one of six 'legacy benefits' slowly being phased out by the introduction of Universal Credit.

The amount outstanding is down slightly from £1.3m at the end of March 2019, but less cash was recovered in the last financial year than in the previous one.

A total of £324,000 was retrieved in 2019/20, down from £359,000 in 2018/19.

However, the statistics show the amount of cash written off also went down.

A total of £45,000 was lost in the year to March, down from £57,000 in the previous 12 months.

The figures show £303,000 worth of overpayments were identified in 2019/2020 – down from £404,000 the previous year.

Municipal Buildings bosses say overpayments of housing benefit are an issue for councils right across the UK and they had made strides to recover money given out to claimants in error.

A council spokesman said the 'vast majority' of outstanding housing benefit payments were historical.

The local authority added that it had 'made good progress' recovering large sums of money.

A spokesperson said: “Overpayment of housing benefit can happen for a variety of reasons, for example when someone starts working, when there’s been a change of address or when someone sadly dies.

"It is not unique to Inverclyde.

“There’s less prevalence nowadays due to improvements in sharing information between local authorities and the DWP, including a housing benefits accuracy initiative which Inverclyde Council has signed up to.

“We use a number of means to recover housing benefit debt. 

"This is primarily from ongoing payment of housing benefit and, where possible, directly from earnings and from other welfare benefits, using Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and DWP information sources to track debtors.

“Our debt recovery policy states we have dual responsibility to collect debts in a sensitive, clear and efficient manner whilst assisting those in need to reduce overall debt and break the cycle of debt.”

Overpayments are unrelated to benefit fraud and can happen for a number of reasons, including cases where the wrong information was included on a claim form or where a claimant didn’t notify officials about a change in circumstances.

They can also happen when a mistake was made by the housing benefit office, or when a claimant was given the incorrect amount for another benefit.

Across Scotland as a whole, £150.2m of overpaid housing benefit is still to be traced.