Welfare fraud probe saves €37m

A SPECIAL investigation unit cracking down on social welfare abuse has netted savings of €37 million so far this year as it goes after trades and professions in the “hidden economy”.

Inspectors at the Department of Social Protection have joined forces with the Revenue Commissioners and cut off payments to a number of dole recipients following ongoing investigations.

Figures obtained by the Irish Examiner detail a clampdown on fraudulent claims made by couriers, taxi drivers and scrap dealers, as well as a number of employees in the clothes recycling sector.

The investigations come as Social Protection Minister Joan Burton moves to set up a specific social welfare fraud unit later this year, which is expected to be partially modelled on the Garda’s National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Ms Burton has said that welfare abuse could account for up to 3% of claims here, meaning thousands of dole recipients could be abusing the system and costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro.

Activities carried out this year by the department’s special investigation unit include ongoing medical examinations of those in receipt of illness payments.

The policing of trades and the monitoring of welfare claims in joint operations carried out by the unit and Revenue have included checks on construction sites, ethnic restaurants and fast-food outlets, as well as undercover inspections of employees at courier companies.

Gardaí have also helped facilitate inspections of taxi operations, including checks at night in Cork, Galway, Roscommon, Limerick, Shannon Airport and Dublin.

Joint operations were also conducted with the environmental officials of Cork County Council, targeting scrap dealers and illegal dumpers, details of the investigation reveal.

So far this year, the special investigation unit, which is made up of 89 officers, has made savings of €37m following thousands of checks and inquiries.

An investigation is ongoing by the unit, Revenue and gardaí over fraud and welfare claims made by a major player in the clothes recycling sector.

Investigators were also involved in checks on claimants attending the Smithfield Horse Fair in May, June and July this year.

Officials in Britain also helped recently to target high-value, fraudulent claims being made in Ireland that have resulted in estimated savings of €1m.

The Government has agreed to make savings of €750m this year in the budget as part of the EU/IMF bailout agreement.

Ms Burton is expected to announce details of the welfare fraud squad, which will include enhanced powers for dole inspectors, when the Dáil reconvenes next month.

Social welfare claimants will also begin to receive new national identity cards this autumn. The national social insurance card, with a photograph, will eventually apply to everybody who has a PPS number.

Claimants, including pensioners, will be included in trial periods.

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