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Law Centre calls for greater transparency as instances of ‘official error’ overpayments in benefits continue to rise

Recovery of social security benefit overpayments caused by official error – when the government makes an error and pays more than the claimant is entitled to – is leading to hardship for thousands of people in Northern Ireland each year.  

As new statistics obtained by the Law Centre show that instances of benefit overpayments caused by official error are continuing to rise in Northern Ireland, we are calling for the publication of open and transparent data to help reduce errors made during the decision-making process.  

Universal Credit Official Error Overpayments in Northern Ireland

Why is this data important?  

The data, obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Law Centre, reveals an increase in official error overpayments in Universal Credit again this year.  

This means that, even though the overpayment was not their fault, some people are being left with reduced incomes and in financial difficulties as they face repayments.  

We are arguing that the official publication of open and transparent data relating to overpayments would help to highlight the extent of the issue, identify areas for improvement, increase accountability and ensure that action is taken to reduce the instances of errors.  

Rising numbers of households in Northern Ireland are living in financial hardship and poverty and low-income families simply cannot afford to repay overpayments which occurred through no fault of their own.   

The statistics have revealed that overpayments in Universal Credit caused by official error rose from 9,596 in 2022-23 to 11,279 in 2023-24 – an increase of 17%. This also represents a financial increase of overpayments from £5,880,989 to £8,476,539. 

Our Social Security team regularly hears from our clients about the stress and anxiety that is caused by the recovery of overpayments which have been caused through no fault of their own. This can have a significant impact on their health and wellbeing. Releasing annual statistics relating to overpayments caused by official error would make the system more transparent, allow for greater scrutiny of decisions and would promote improved decision-making. No one should have to face financial difficulties because of an error that was made during the official decision-making process.

Owen McCloskey
Head of Social Security, Law Centre NI

Raising awareness of Discretionary Waiver

It is possible that a claimant can ask the Department for Communities to apply its discretion in the recovery of official error overpayments and waive the repayment. This is known as a ‘Discretionary Waiver.’  

Following a Law Centre NI campaign in 2022 calling for the Department for Communities to increase awareness of Discretionary Waivers among claimants, DfC now includes information about the option of a Discretionary Waiver in its overpayment notification letters. As a result of our campaign, staff and guidance have also been updated to ensure DfC staff make claimants aware that they can request a Discretionary Waiver.  

The increase in the number of Discretionary Waivers being granted is particularly important for benefits such as Universal Credit, where recovery is pursued even when the person had no responsibility for the overpayment occurring. This is different from the previous “legacy benefits” where claimants cannot be asked to repay an overpayment if they were not responsible for it occurring. 

Number of Universal Credit "Official Error" Overpayments granted Discretionary Waivers in Northern Ireland

The value of the 57 Universal Credit overpayments classified as Official Error and granted a Discretionary Waiver during 2023-2024 was £217,564.91 (FOI Ref: DFC/2024-0108).  

We encourage advisers and claimants to look closely at their options for requesting that an overpayment is waived.  A waiver would relieve claimants of the worry of the financial burden of making repayments from an already tight budget. 

We have also prepared a guide with template letters to assist both claimants and advisers request a Discretionary Waiver.  

The guide can be found here 

Statistics on Discretionary Waivers across all benefits 

Year   Number Requested   Number Approved   Success  


2020-21   95   82   86.31% 
2021-22   197   167   84.77% 
2022-23   257   217   84.43% 
2023-24   371   281   75.74% 


Graph showing the number of Discretionary Waivers requested and granted

The data shows that in 2020-2021, 86% of Discretionary Waivers were granted. In 2021-2022, 85% were granted, 84% in 2022-2023 and 76% in 2023-2024, indicating high levels of success when requesting a Discretionary Waiver. It is important therefore that everyone who meets the criteria for waiver is aware of the possibility and is encouraged to apply.

Data is also available which breaks down the instances of waivers from benefit to benefit. 

Waiver Data for 23/24 Financial Year  
Benefit Type   Waiver Requests   Waivers Granted   Decision  


Carers Allowance   26   15    
Disability Living Allowance        
Employment & Support Allowance   83   70    
Income Support   14   11    
Jobseekers Allowance        
Personal Independence Payment        
Pension Credit        
Tax Credit   47   36    
Universal Credit Overpayment   171   131   12  
Universal Credit Advance   14      
Welfare Supplementary payments        
Total Waivers   371   281   15  

While we welcome the steady increase in Discretionary Waivers being granted, we are concerned that in 2023-24, there were only 57 Discretionary Waivers of Universal Credit official error overpayments. This figure represents just 0.51% of the total 11,279 overpayments underscoring that more work is clearly needed to raise awareness of Discretionary Waivers and encourage applications. 


  • For several years, Law Centre NI has called for the Department for Communities to officially publish data relating to overpayments and Discretionary Waivers, including the instances of official error overpayments for Universal Credit. 
  • In 2022, we raised concerns about a change in the law which meant that most benefit overpayments caused by official error are now recoverable – despite being caused by an error in the decision-making process.  
  • We considered that this could lead to a deterioration in standards of decision-making, given that there is less accountability for mistakes.
  • The Freedom of Information data has been provided with a note from the Department for Communities explaining that the data provided […] is taken from operational data systems and is not intended for publication. Therefore the data itself is not quality assured to the standard of published Official Statistics.

Law Centre NI can provide advice and assistance on overpayments and discretionary waiver.  Contact the social security team on 028 9024 4401, Monday to Friday, 09:30-13:00.

Read our client 'Rachel's' story who was contacted about a Universal Credit overpayment