Fraud “isn’t an issue” for the Department of Social Protection, according to its secretary general despite a significant increase in the number of tip-offs from members of the public.
Niamh O’Donoghue yesterday told the Public Accounts Committee that the department is satisfied that the vast majority of welfare recipients are entitled to the payments they receive, and that in many cases a misunderstanding of the system leads to wrongful complaints from the public.
Ms O’Donoghue, who was before the committee to discuss the Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2013 annual report, said approximately 20% of the complaints made by the public are of value to the department.
“I would absolutely disagree with any suggestion that there is rampant fraud in the social welfare system,” Ms O’Donoghue told the committee.
“It varies from scheme to scheme and depending on the nature and type of schemes involved. One of the things we do within the department is we categorise schemes into high, low, and medium risk. The high-risk schemes are the ones we wish to spend the most attention on.
“In terms of international comparisons there is no evidence to suggest that fraud in Ireland is out of step or out of kilter with the level of fraud anywhere else,” she said.
“The evidence points to the fact that the vast, vast majority of social welfare claimants are receiving the payments that they are entitled to, so fraud isn’t an issue.
“What you’re looking at then is a very small number of people who obviously are engaged in activity and it’s our job to try to minimise the opportunity for that.
The committee heard that the number of complaints increased in a “very significant way” when the recession hit.
“I think on average it had been certainly in the low thousands, and in 2011 it went up to nearly 17,000. In 2012 it hit its peak at 28,000, came down a little bit in 2013 to just under 25,000 and in 2014 it was 23,000. It’s still very high obviously,” said Ms O’Donoghue.
She told the committee that she would “guesstimate” that about 20% of calls from the public are valuable to the department in control terms, but said that it remained a “hugely valuable engagement by the public”.
“People have a perception that if somebody is in receipt of social welfare that they should have no other engagement with the workforce but in fact quite a number of our schemes have a facility for either doing that in a fairly significant way or even in a limited way,” she said.
The department categorises overpayments to claimants under three headings — fraud, claimant error, and departmental or administrative error.
Fine Gael TD John Deasy questioned how the department decides how to categorise these overpayments.
“One man’s claimant error is another man’s fraud,” he said.
Ms O’Donoghue said that such decisions are made by trained deciding officer who are in full possession of the available details of the case on which they are ruling.
Meanwhile Ms O’Donoghue said that her department disagreed with the Comptroller and Auditor General’s contention that the department “should evaluate the extent to which the Farm Assist scheme is achieving its objectives in terms of assisting claimants to continue farming, and in helping maintain the viability of rural communities”.
While Ms O’Donoghue said that she could “understand where the C&AG is coming from”, she said that such an evaluation would be outside the remit of her department and that other bodies would have better expertise to undertake such a review.
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