CASH-STRAPPED Southend Council has paid more than £4million too much to benefits claimants...and only claimed half back.

Councillors will hear tomorrow a total of £4.3million was overpaid.

A report, by Christine Lynch, the council’s revenue group manager, also reveals less than half of the overpayments have been recovered since April last year and £278,692 has been written off.

Such overpayments usually occur because people claiming income support have come off benefits, or their circumstances have changed, and they have failed to tell the council.

Some of the debt is due to council error where the authority has been informed of changes to people’s circumstances, but failed to act.

Councillors had to slash £10.4million from the budget this year after a 4 per cent drop in Government grants, and may have to find more than £11million savings next year if the Government agrees further cuts.

Independent group leader Martin Terry says the figures are worrying at a time when the council needs to tighten its belt.

He said: “The council tries all the time to tighten up on financial handling through the audit committee. This question has been raised before at scrutiny and doubtless will be raised again at audit.

“We rely on the public to be open, efficient and honest, but there have been some fairly high profile cases where money has had to be recouped through the courts.

“It’s certainly a concern. We need to look at the financial controls we have. I am not convinced and am very concerned our financial controls.”

Andrew Moring, Southend councillor responsible for corporate services said: “Housing benefit overpayment most commonly occurs when rent allowances or rebates are paid to people who are no longer entitled to receive the original award; the most frequent cause is a change in claimants’ personal circumstances which they fail to make the council aware off.

“Any change in income should be notified to the council immediately to ensure that claimants receive the correct benefits payments.

“We have a dedicated team within the benefits department which works to recover overpayments; so far this financial year it has recovered more than £1.93million .

“One of the main recovery methods is to make deductions from any on-going benefit, while other options involve using legal action through the County Court.”