Welfare fraud bank checks proposed

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton

Suspected welfare fraudsters could have their bank accounts inspected under tough new powers being brought in to clamp down on benefit cheats.

Department of Social Protection investigators will be given fraud squad-style rights to trawl through the finances of people accused of making irregular claims.

A crackdown on 982,000 individual benefit claims saved €645m last year, the Government revealed.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said a record 17,000 anonymous tip-offs about irregular claims were received last year – with about a third found to be scamming the system.

“Where there is fraud the decision to prosecute is ultimately a matter for the gardaí and the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) and obviously the trail of evidence has to be satisfactory,” said Ms Burton.

Evidence uncovered by social welfare officers could ultimately be used in court prosecutions against the most serious offenders, the minister said.

The proposed Bill will be brought before the Dáil in the next few weeks.

The Government is also pushing ahead with the roll-out of a social welfare identification card in a bid to increase the number of prosecutions.

Ms Burton said the level of savings last year was well above the target of €540m.

“It’s important that money goes and is targeted to the people who are entitled to the money, to people who need support rather than be misused in any way,” she added.

“The vast majority of people are totally honest but there is a small percentage of people who do scam the system and I make no apologies for having the department have as much surveillance and targeted auditing of people who may be scamming the system.”

The department’s fraud review for 2011 showed:

- €167m saved from irregular One Parent Family payments to 103,562 claimants;

- Pension savings of almost €142m from 13,871 people;

- More than €92m saved through illness payments from 191,640 cases;

- Savings in jobseekers claims worth more than €82m, with more than 222,000 claims reviewed;

- More than 392,000 child benefit payment claims reviewed resulting in savings of about €88m.

- 222 cases were dealt with in the court, with seven people jailed. Another 134 had fines imposed, 28 got probation, 18 got a suspended sentence, and 16 community service.

More detailed figures showed that of €84m of overpayments in 2010, less than a third were fraudulent.

Another 50% were customer error, 6% were department error and the remainder were estates cases – where property left to a relative of a dead person had not been declared. Some €35m has since been repaid.

The minister revealed that while the suspected average level of fraud stands at 1% to 3% in Ireland, the rates soared during targeted investigations.

- Of 849 individuals suspected of making multiple claims under different identities, 274 (33%) were cauught, resulting in €3.7m in savings;

- A review of 5,062 individuals suspected of not being resident in the state found 12% (605) were fraudulent;

- A joint investigation with revenue of five transport companies saved €170,000, with 20 staff claiming benefits and 38 individuals not registered for tax. Seven cases are being considered for prosecution;

- A pilot project measuring a person’s lifestyle against social welfare payments found 16 of 37 high-profile investigations had payments cut, saving €375,000.

"It shows our commitment to tackling fraud and abuse of the social welfare system across our broad range of schemes,” Ms Burton added.

However the Department's claims that welfare fraud prevention resulted in savings of €645m in 2011 have been disputed.

"The most recent study conducted on this issue showed that more than three quarters of the savings came from correcting errors made by staff in calculating people's entitlements," said Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland.

The study, entitled 'Tackling Welfare Fraud' was published by the Oireachtas Library & Research Service on October 13, 2011.

It concluded that only 21.1% of over-payments in the social welfare system were due to fraud.

"There is no justification for misleading statements that present many of Ireland's poorest and most vulnerable people as fraudsters when the facts clearly don't support such a claim," Dr Healy added.

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