Department secretary general John McKeon made the admission under questioning by TDs, saying “putting the word ‘cheat’ beside the word ‘welfare’ ... in retrospect I believe it was a mistake”.
Appearing before the Public Accounts Commission, Mr McKeon was repeatedly questioned by TDs over the campaign which was instigated by Mr Varadkar in the run-up to the Fine Gael leadership election in June.
During the campaign, bus posters, radio adverts and billboards all ran the caption “welfare cheats cheat us all” and 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 heavily criticised for overstating the level of welfare fraud in order for then social protection minister Mr Varadkar to appeal to the Fine Gael voter base.
The view has been repeatedly denied by the Government despite the fact the campaign has effectively been dropped in recent months.
Mr McKeon said the campaign cost the state €163,000 and that it based on “the best advice from professional advisers in marketing, advertising and communications companies, so you take their advice and you run with it”.
He told Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry when asked if the campaign had “anything to do with [government strategic communications unit chief [John Concannon]:
“This is across-departmental. There is a group set up by the Department of the Taoiseach, yes. It was brought forward by the Department of the Taoiseach and approved by that management board.” Mr MacSharry said “so it’s origin is the new spin, sorry, communications unit.”