The total direct expenditure as a result of Covid-19 between February 2020 and 2021 was €17.1 billion, according to the annual report published today from the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Of this spending, 90% came from the Departments of Social Protection, Health, Enterprise and Housing & Local Government.

The Department of Social Protection spent €11.1 billion with the Pandemic Unemployment payment (PUP) accounting for €6.1 billion or more than half (55%) of that spend, and the temporary wage subsidy scheme (TWSS) and its successor scheme the employment wage subsidy scheme (EWSS) accounting for 43% with a combined spend of €4.8 billion.

The Department of Health spent €2.7 billion in Covid-related spending up to February 2021, with over one third of that (€920m) being spent on PPE.

Supports for hospitals and nursing homes cost €600m, Building and equipment costs were €380m and testing and tracing cost €292m with the peak health spending between April and June of 2020.

The Department of Housing and local government paid out €840 million in supports in the same year.

The vast majority of that, €729m, was in grant funding to local authorities to compensate for the loss of commercial rates during the waiver.

The majority of its spending was between September 2020 and January 2021.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment provided €783 million in supports to businesses impacted by Covid-19.

The majority of it was spent on the business restart schemes (€640m) and the sustaining enterprise fund (€98m)

The Department of Education spent €586 million and almost half of that (€268m went in supports to reopening schools.

The Department of Transport spent over €400m in the same period with the vast majority (€397m) going to transport companies in the form of additional public service obligation (PSO) grant.

The Revenue Commissioners spent €329 million on the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme (CRSS) which began in October 2020 and allowed businesses significantly affected by restrictions who carried on a business activity, claim for a payment of up to €5,000 a week that its business was affected.

The report points out that this spending covers only until February 2021 and as many of these supports continued beyond this, the figures should not regarded as interim estimates of the cost of responding to the pandemic.

High level of 'irregular' welfare payments

The Comptroller and Auditor General says that the available evidence points to "a material incidence" of payments in excess of entitlements of claimants under many welfare schemes.

The report said this has been confirmed by the level of irregular payments found by the Department's most recent control surveys.

It says that the Department made changes to the control regime following the publication early in 2021 of control surveys on the Jobseeker’s allowance scheme and one-parent family payment. The report said that the levels of irregular payment identified on both surveys is high.

It says that the Department will need to review the impact of proposed changes to the control environment in order to ensure that the risk of excess payment has been reduced.

Eligibility for Covid-19 restart grants for business was not subject to verification

The Comptroller and Auditor General has said that eligibility for the Covid-19 restart grants for business was not subject to verification.

€688 million was paid out to small and medium business between 2020 and 2021 but the report of the C&AG said there is no assurance that all payees met the prescribed criteria or that they received the level of payments to which they were entitled because reviews of eligibility have not yet been completed.

The report said the Department of Enterprise is currently in the process of procuring an audit of the scheme which will include examining if the eligibility criteria was complied with.

But it says this process may be difficult as the Department did not specify the type of proof that may be sought from the claimant.

However, the Department said local authorities did check that businesses were registered for commercial rates and verified their tax clearance status which provided some level of assurance that only legitimate businesses received the grant payment.

Almost 10% of PUP claimants not eligible for the scheme

The Comptroller and Auditor General has found there were not enough checks carried out when people applied for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment last year.

In a sample of cases reviewed, it found almost 10% (9.4%) of claimants were not eligible for the income support scheme.

The PUP amounted to a total of almost €5 billion last year.

The report on the accounts of the Public Services for 2020, found that in just under half the cases, the claimant continued working while claiming PUP.

In one quarter of those cases sampled, there was no evidence the claimant had been working prior to the pandemic which was one of the criteria for eligibility.

The report found there were only "weak assurances" over the Department's control of claims; in particular when it came to the claimant's declarations of residency and employment status.

Anti-fraud policy needed for HAP scheme

The Government should develop an anti-fraud policy for the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), according to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The scheme which cost the Government €465 million last year, supports households who have a long-term housing need that they are unable to meet without assistance.

The report states that just under 60,000 households were receiving support under the HAP scheme at end 2020.

It recommends the Department of Housing implement a process to identify the incidence of error and suspected fraud in payments relating to the scheme.

The C&AG examination of the scheme also recommends the Department should review the current oversight and management arrangements in place to ensure they are "fit for purpose and reflect good practice".

€4.3 million paid for night vision imaging system for rescue helicopters

The Comptroller and Auditor General's report said that the Department of Transport paid €4.305 million in 2013 to the company providing search and rescue in Ireland to ensure the five helicopters used for the service are equipped with a night vision imaging system capability.

It said that another €527,000 was paid in 2015 for 24 sets of night vision goggles.

The report says that an initial payment of €1.714 million was made in 2018 in respect of training that commenced in November 2019 and which the Department expects to be completed by 2022.

But the report says that as of June 2021, only one of the four Search and Rescue bases had been approved by the Irish Aviation Authority for operating a night vision imaging system-enabled service.

The CNAG says that he is not persuaded that good value for money for the taxpayer has been achieved from this expenditure.

In response the Accounting Officer said that training was due to commence in 2018. But training only commenced in November 2019 due to the departure of a training instructor, adding that training has continued since intermittently due to Covid-19.

Compliance checks required for Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme

Revenue should review how it carries out compliance checks with regard to the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme.

The Comptroller and Auditor General report has made the recommendation after €311 million of the pandemic business support was identified as repayable due to over-payments or ineligibility for the scheme.

Over a third of all employers registered with Revenue availed of the scheme.

In 2020, a total of €2.8 billion was paid to 66,370 employers for 678,236 employees.

The report states that by August this year, Revenue had been repaid €212 million of the outstanding repayable subsidies, with €81 million warehoused for future collection. There is a residual €18 million was outstanding for recovery.

Revenue to review rating system for suspicious transactions

The C&AG report says that Revenue received approximately 125,000 suspicious transaction reports between 2016 to 2020.

These reports must be submitted by designated people such as financial institutions, auditors and legal professionals to the Revenue Commissioners and the gardaí where they have suspicions of terrorist financing or money laundering, including the laundering of the proceeds of tax evasion.

Thee C&AG report said that an examination of these reports potentially provides useful intelligence to Revenue in tackling shadow economy activity.

The report said that the risk rating system has not been updated since 2014 and does not take account of new words and technological advances.

The C&AG report recommends that Revenue should periodically review and update the automatic risk rating system which assigns a rating to each Suspicious Transaction Report. It says that the update should include revision of existing keywords to reflect developments in the shadow economy and the results of manual reviews of automated risk rating.

The Accounting Officer agreed saying that in 2020, Revenue established a review group with a view to updating the risk rating system. This was delayed due to the impact of Covid-19. But it said that the group is now actively working on introducing a new risk rating system, which is scheduled for delivery in 2022.

Local authorities receive over €6 billion in 2020

Over €6 billion in funding was transferred from central Government departments to local authorities last year, an increase of 46% on the €4.17 billion in 2019.

The Comptroller and Auditor General report states that the increase of €1.91 billion was primarily due to funding for Covid-19 related costs, which accounted for €1.42 billion.

Other significant increases related to housing and regeneration and roads.

Additional reporting: Gill Stedman