Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni is under fire after it was revealed the amount of money overpaid to beneficiaries has reached nearly $1 billion.
Figures provided to the National Party from Sepuloni reveal at the end of the 2018/19 financial year, current and former beneficiaries owed the Ministry of Social Development $990,289,728 due to overpayments. This was just over $222 million more than they owed at the end of the previous financial year.
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National leader Simon Bridges says the increase shows Sepuloni is incompetent and "doesn't have control of her department".
"Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni has repeatedly talked about making sure people get everything they're entitled to, but she’s gone the extra mile and overspent a billion dollars more of taxpayers’ money than she should have," Bridges said.
But Sepuloni told Newshub that National was being "disingenuous" by not mentioning that the amount beneficiaries owe in fraud debt and recoverable assistance was down over the last year.
She also said the $990 million figure was cumulative of previous years. The 2016/17 figures - the last before National left office - showed overpayments had reached $739 million. However, the recent $222 million increase is the largest in the five years' worth of data provided to the National Party.
"The figures that have been talked about haven't just been built up over the last year or two years, they have actually been built up over a period of many years under consecutive Governments," the Social Development Minister told Newshub.
Sepuloni says one of the reasons why overpayments occur is that clients' situations often quickly change and they may begin earning more money than the Ministry of Social Development's (MSD) systems have them down for. That can affect how much their benefit should be.
"Overpayments are not ideal but because people's situations fluctuate then that is something that happens," she said.
"We have got to keep in mind that this is not an administrative level mistake on the MSD end as such. It is just that people's situations change and sometimes the system can't keep up or isn't kept up to date with what is going on."
She said improvements can always be made in making sure fluctuations in clients' situations are recorded, but she was encouraging more honest conversations with them.
"We are intervening and facilitating early to make sure that if there is something that doesn't look quite right we have honest conversations with our clients. Our clients are being very honest with us," Sepuloni said.