Computer systems at the Ministry of Social Development are unable to accurately assess the total amount of benefit fraud.
And while the ministry’s systems are under review, modifications to allow this functionality could prove costly.
The issue came to light when ACT MP Muriel Newman quizzed ministers about the amount of benefit fraud debt that has been recovered by the Department of Work and Income over the past five years.
The department says it can quantify many overpayments but claims figures for fraud recovery cannot be broken down due to “system limitations”.
MoSD operates two computer systems — Swiftt and Trace — to track benefits. Both are written in Linc and run on a Unisys Clearpath mainframe. Swiftt is used to assess benefits and Trace to manage benefit debt and fraud. This means Swiftt tends to deal with current beneficiaries while Trace holds information on debtors no longer receiving a benefit.
“While it is possible to discern the type of debt from looking at an individual record, it is not possible to provide an aggregate figure for total benefit fraud debt recovered,” says MoSD spokeswoman Bronwyn Saunders.
Saunders says the way the information on debt recovery is collected and recorded has nothing to do with how benefit fraud is detected, nor how much fraud is detected.
Despite any shortfall in system functionality, the government says it pursues debtors “vigorously”.
Earlier, in a written reply to Dr Newman, Associate Minister of Social Services and Employment Rick Barker explained: “As debt cycles between these two systems, the codes identifying the debt as benefit fraud is lost, consequently any subsequent recovery cannot be identified as a benefit fraud recovery.”
As a result, the ACT MP says, the amount of benefit fraud cannot be measured and the government cannot be held accountable over it.
“We can ask. They can’t tell us. It’s bloody hopeless.”
Barker says benefit fraud can be tackled because “we can track people’s records. The only thing we cannot do is answer a specific question [of] Muriel Newman.”
He confirms the department’s computers cannot add up fraud for those no longer on benefit, but says changes are planned, including fixing the existing system or a wholesale replacement.
“There is no timetable for change, but people are reviewing the system.”
The issue is how much change would cost and what value would come from it, he says.
Dr Newman is demanding “urgent priority” be given to system modifications “so that taxpayers can see that benefit fraud is being recovered at an effective level”.
Saunders says the ministry is developing a statement of intent on its needs, due for completion by year-end. From that, decisions about the ministry’s systems will be made.
Barker says the ministry is already assessing computing systems from around the world.
However, the government says New Zealand does more individualised case management work than takes place in other countries, so we need a different system.
Barker describes the present computer system as “old” and “complicated” but says it works adequately and that there is no immediate pressure to make a change. Also, what isn’t available now might be in a few years.
Rewriting code or changing systems would be very expensive, he says. What is does, it does well, he says. “As a large payroll system, it [the current system] works with remarkable accuracy and efficiency.”