Sinn Féin social protection spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh said yesterday that while many newspaper headlines referred to social welfare “fraud”, the reality was that the majority of overpayments were caused by genuine error.
As a result, he said, an amnesty should be offered so those who got overpayments could tell the Department of Social Protection and have their benefits corrected without penalties.
The party has published a bill proposing such an amnesty and will seek to debate the issue in the Dáil when it resumes following the summer recess.
Mr Ó Snodaigh said that while fraud and error accounted for 3.4% of the welfare budget, the majority of the overpayments involved were down to error.
“Less than one third of this is as a result of fraud and this is dropping every year.
“The other two thirds of overpayments are accounted for by customer and departmental error.
“This draft bill seeks to implement a social welfare amnesty which would offer social welfare recipients the opportunity to report irregularities in the payments made to them.
“The department would then correct the payments. Those that avail of the amnesty would not be penalised and the department would not seek repayment of past overpayments.”
Mr Ó Snodaigh said the amnesty should be a one-off event lasting a month, and followed by a “two-month intensification” of anti-fraud and control activities.
“It would be held in the first quarter of the year, ideally February, to maximise the benefit of the control saving to the department’s budget for the remainder of the year. We estimate that the amnesty would give rise to a one-off control saving hike of €55m. It will also free up the department’s inspectors to focus on other priorities.
“This is a common sense proposal and one which doesn’t unfairly penalise or scapegoat the least well-off and I call on the Government to look closely on these proposals and take them on board.”
The most up-to-date figures for fraud and error were provided by Department of Social Protection officials to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee earlier this year.
They said that in 2010, when the department had a budget of €20bn, overpayments were €83.4m: €25.9m was attributed to suspected fraud, €42.4m to customer or third party error, and €5.2m to departmental error. The remaining €9.9m had been assessed against estate cases.