Overpaid Covid-19 benefits to be clawed back, minister says
The $3.5 million overpaid in unemployment benefits over the Covid-19 crisis is being targeted for return, the labour minister has insisted.
Jason Hayward said: “I know that the Ministry of Finance has a team working hard to recover those funds.
“The Minister of Finance assembled a team to audit the unemployment benefit fund and the Minister of Finance is working hard to ensure that money is repaid.
“The aim is to retrieve the money that was overpaid.”
Mr Hayward was speaking after Heather Thomas, the Auditor-General, said the Government must improve its administrative procedures to prevent such mistakes.
The finance ministry last night it had seen the Auditor-General’s assessment of the unemployment benefit programme and would use it to help improve its administration of the scheme.
Ms Thomas said in a report to the House of Assembly that moves should be made to claw back the money handed out in error to ensure that the “integrity of the Government unemployment assistance programme” was maintained.
Ms Thomas, who investigated the payment system for the emergency programme, questioned why “blanket” approval for claims was given after shut downs in the wake of the pandemic hitting the island.
Mr Hayward said he expected proposed new reforms of the permanent residence certificate system would help ease delays in the immigration process triggered by Covid-19.
He said: “Immigration is reliant on two things – number one is the technology, number two is the human resources.
“We have worked hard to improve our technology, but Covid has disrupted our human resources and as a result there was a slight backlog.”
A spokeswoman for the finance ministry said that “because of the critical nature of ensuring that funding was provided to these vulnerable persons on a timely basis, there were instances in which there was insufficient time for unemployment benefit applications to be completed within the full review and approval process, prior to making payments – in accordance with the unemployment benefit regulations”.
She added: “This crisis required the wellbeing of Bermuda residents to be given the highest priority.
“We made the necessary decisions to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society had funding for the basic necessities of life and to keep them and their families out of extreme poverty during a time of unprecedented hardship.
“It was a time when saving lives had to take precedence over rigid adherence to rules for the greater good.”
But the spokeswoman said: “We will continue our work to strengthen our procedures.
“We will incorporate the Auditor-General’s recommendations into our approach where a gap has been identified.”