Welfare fraud campaign ignored Department errors

The Government’s “welfare cheats cheat us all” campaign ignored the fact the majority of its claimed 2% welfare fraud rate was due to Department of Social Protection errors and not those of recipients.

The breakdown in figures was revealed by the Dáil Public Accounts Committee yesterday as it was confirmed that the policy cost taxpayers €163,000.

New Department of Social Protection secretary general John McKeon was asked to explain how exactly the 2% rate is broken down.

Responding to Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry, Mr McKeon said the figure is based on a 0.6% suspected fraud rate and a 1.4% departmental error rate as both categories are merged together in official statistics.

The comment was criticised by Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane, who said “we now see the vast majority are errors”.

After Mr McKeon claimed media outlets “sensationalise” fraud levels, Fianna Fáil TD Shane Cassells said: “Your own department sensationalised it.”

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the “welfare cheats cheat us all” campaign has caused “a terrible damage to your department”.

“We have to balance that up with what was on the buses. That said ‘fraud’, not ‘error’. Did you say [when you saw the figures] ‘Minister you really shouldn’t run with this campaign?’”

Mr McKeon responded that “we ran with the marketing campaign which was suggested to us”.

Ms Connolly said: “Did you say it’s not fraud, it’s error? It did a terrible damage to your department. It was damning, damning, it said more about your department [than welfare recipients], I have to say.”

The situation emerged during a committee meeting which heard TDs across the political divide repeatedly hit out at the campaign.

Running earlier this year, the campaign saw bus posters, radio adverts, and billboards all carry the caption “welfare cheats cheat us all”. It urged people to contact the Department of Social Protection if they knew of anyone incorrectly receiving State supports.

While the campaign was intended to protect State funds, it was criticised for overstating the level of welfare fraud.

Speaking on behalf of committee members, chairman and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming told Mr McKeon the department must re-examine its definition of “fraud” and acknowledge that in many cases, the issues are due to genuine errors.

Mr McKeon said the department is “starting to change the wording ‘suspected fraud’”.

He was interrupted by Mr Fleming, who said: “When? It’s not there. There was a document last week, on November 24 — the title mentions ‘fraud’ again.

“The only person who can come to that conclusion is a judge. But you seem to be able to read people’s minds.”

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