BOLTON Council was owed more than £6m in housing benefit paid to claimants in error before the coronavirus crisis brought debt collections to a halt, new figures show.

People who are not entitled to benefits, or who are paid more benefit than they should get, are required to pay the money back to their local authority.

But Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data shows housing benefit claimants owed £6.1m to Bolton Council from overpayments at the start of the year. The figures exclude fraud cases.

This debt formed part of the £2bn sum still owed to British councils in January, before the covid-19 pandemic hit.

In the year to March, Bolton Council collected £2.1 million from claimants who had been overpaid, the figures show. But it also wrote off £410,000 during that time.

In April, the DWP announced it would pause debt collections for three months to shift staff to frontline roles, with recoveries resuming in July.

Charity Turn2us, which helps people in financial hardship, warned recovery of benefit overpayments could be "the straw that breaks the camel's back" amid the pandemic, pushing those already struggling into financial turmoil.

Sara Wilcox, head of external affairs at Turn2us, said claimants often have no idea they have been overpaid housing benefit, and can suddenly find themselves in debt.

She said: "It risks being the straw that breaks the camel's back. It can push those who are just about managing into a financial crisis and all the mental struggles that go hand in hand."

Across Great Britain, overpayments recovered during the year totalled £573 million, while £80 million worth of payments were written off, an 11 per cent drop compared to a year earlier.

"The coronavirus pandemic has left so many people's financial resilience in tatters," Ms Wilcox said.

"We urge the DWP to perform affordability checks before making deductions and consider another debt collection holiday to avoid pushing any more households into poverty."

A DWP spokesman said: “We have provided £9.3bn extra welfare support to help those most in need during the pandemic, including increasing Universal Credit by up to £20 a week, as well as introducing income protection schemes, mortgage holidays and additional support for renters.

“We remain committed to helping the most vulnerable in society.”

He added claimants experiencing financial hardship can request deferral of repayments by contacting the DWP’s debt management line.