€70m paid yearly for free travel passes

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has expressed shock that over €70m is paid out annually for free travel passes based on usage figures from 1973.

Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness questioned if funds paid to CIÉ and private firms were good value for taxpayers’ money, as the last survey on those who used passes was carried out four decades ago.

The Department of Social Protection admitted that there were no figures on how many used services today under the free transport scheme.

Free travel is granted to people aged 66 or over, those on disability allowance as well as carers and widows among others.

PAC chairman Mr Guinness asked why nobody thought it was important that the numbers using the free travel service be counted.

Department secretary general Niamh O’Donoghue said she did not know why a survey of users had not been carried out since 1973. But she also said the department was probably making a saving as free travel numbers had most probably increased since then.

But Mr McGuinness said: “I’m shocked. That we continue to pay those companies that level of money and you simply do not know the numbers you’re dealing with. If you checked it, you might find we’re paying too little or too much.”

Of the €76m paid out for the scheme in 2011, €61m of this went to CIE.

Ms O’Donoghue responded that a new free travel pass card would be issued to all users by the end of the year and that a survey of users would also be carried out.

Fine Gael backbench TDs, meanwhile, expressed concern at the committee meeting that not enough was being done to tackle fraudulent social welfare claims.

Waterford TD John Deasy said sanctions in other jurisdictions were harsher for those making fraudulent claims and Ireland should follow that example.

In Scotland, prosecutions occurred in one third of welfare fraud cases, he said.

Very few cases in Ireland ended up before the courts, he told committee members.

Ms O’Donoghue said debts of €52m were recovered from overpaid welfare claimants in 2011. This was out of a €20bn department budget.

Limerick TD Kieran O’Donnell said the level of detection of fraud by the department needed to be higher and more investigative staff were needed.

Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy told PAC that claimants may be more inclined to make fake claims unless deterrents were there.

“Ultimately, unless there is a combination of a high probability of detection, followed by prompt recovery of payments in excess of entitlements, persons tempted to submit false claims for welfare benefits are unlikely to be deterred from doing so.”

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