Social welfare inspectors accused of harassment and bullying

Low level of complaints due to fears of retribution, say experts
Social welfare inspectors accused of harassment and bullying

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A fear of retribution has contributed to a low level of complaints against social welfare inspectors by claimants, according to experts in the sector.

Social welfare inspectors can visit  homes and workplaces to "ensure that compliance is in order", according to the Government.

An investigation by the Irish Examiner this week found that many women who received a lone-parent payment have reported being "harassed", "stalked", and "bullied" by social welfare inspectors who turn up unannounced to their home. Many have reported inspectors going through their wardrobes and quizzing them on how they pay for items such as baby clothes and Sky television packages.

A number of the women the Irish Examiner spoke with said that inspectors told them they would lose social welfare payments if they entered relationships, and inspectors have been quoted on a number of occasions making comments like: "Do you expect us to pay for your lifestyle?" and other comments which women said made them feel "degraded" and "worthless".

The number of complaints has remained steady from 2012, with just 18 lodged against inspectors. In 2014 the number was as low as eight, and continued to rise. In 2018, 19 complaints were lodged and 2019 saw a spike, with 31 — the highest number ever recorded.

Those in the sector say that complaints continue to be low due to fear of retribution and an adversarial approach from those who work in social welfare.

Joe Whelan, a lecturer in Applied Social Studies at UCC, has researched the social welfare system for a number of years. He said that he would be surprised if the number of complaints rose any higher.

"There is a reluctance to complain informally or formally, because that puts them at a disadvantage ... we call it 'impression management', trying to be a 'good' welfare recipient, so you don't rock the boat," he said.

"I'm not surprised it's low, I'd be surprised if it was higher, people are very reluctant to make complaints ... it's a sense or feeling of how you're being treated, you're heavily scrutinised and it's a systemic problem, it comes with a certain type of culture."

Bríd O'Brien, from the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, said: "The Examiner report very much resonates with things that would arise in our advocacy services, in inspections whether it's lone parents or people on disability payments, that sense of: 'I'm not believed, I'm up to no good' is very prevalent."

In a statement, the Department of Social Protection said it refutes any suggestion that making a complaint would have an impact on a customer’s claim, entitlements, or future interactions with it.

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