Overreach of power: Intimidation and harassment in the social welfare system

The system of social welfare inspection leaves mothers in receipt of single-parent payments vulnerable to abuse of power, with unannounced visits and searches of personal possessions, writes Political Correspondent Aoife Moore
Overreach of power: Intimidation and harassment in the social welfare system

File image

The system of social welfare inspection leaves mothers in receipt of single-parent payments vulnerable to abuse of power, with unannounced visits and searches of personal possessions, writes Political Correspondent Aoife Moore.

In many cases the women are left feeling small and worthless.

The Social Welfare inspectors have all the power, and in some cases they abuse it.

The mums claiming the single parent allowance are left between a rock and a hard place - make a complaint and risk losing the payment, or just stay quiet and take it.

The Irish Examiner spoke to a number of women who say that unannounced visits to their homes while on lone-parent payments made them feel "worthless".

They claim that while on the single parent payment, they were told that if they entered a relationship they would lose the payment, and inspectors would come to their homes unannounced, searching each room, sometimes opening wardrobes looking for men's clothes and questioning them about cars parked outside.

Roman Shorthall, a former legal executive with a speciality in social welfare has worked on over dozens of cases involving lone-parents.

"The main stories we're hearing are that inspectors come in looking for men's clothes, looking around for evidence, men's runners for example, the presumption is that all these women are heterosexual because they're only looking for men's stuff," he said.

"We'd often heard cases where inspectors might sit outside people's houses and I've dealt with cases where they might say: 'We saw your ex-partner visiting the house, why was he was there?' or why a certain car was outside, basically fishing for information."

One major concern about such inspections is that the inspectors almost always attend houses on their own and the women they visit are often unaware of their rights and vulnerable due to lack of income and support. The inspector's report of the visit and living situation is sent to a presiding officer who oversees approval.

"That may be their only source of income or family maintenance, this person can cut off their entire source of income based on a report," Mr Shorthall added.

This creates an extremely inappropriate level of power wielded by one person, it's ripe for abuse.

"You can put in a complaint but no one bothers, the issue is it can't be proven, and people tend not to pursue complaints because clients are afraid of reprisal."

According to the Government, individual social welfare inspectors can decide "what investigative approach is required and is most appropriate to the case".

Investigations may involve desk assessments, office interviews, written and or verbal inquiries, and "may also include home visits. These may be notified or un-notified".

The powers under Section 250 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 make no provision for home visits, only for visits to employers, however Code of Practice For Social Welfare Inspectors states: "When interviewing in a customer's home the Inspector should ensure that all those present during the interview are present with the customer's consent.

"Inspectors, while in a customer's home, can, in certain circumstances, request permission to seek entry to other rooms."

Louise Bayliss, founder of Single Parents Acting For Rights of Kids says through her group, she often hears of instances of intimidation by inspectors.

"It's still a major issue. Although some said their experiences were respectful and okay, the majority of others say it was really appalling," she said.

"It would be regular that people say they woke up and someone was at their door, surprising them. One of the recurring themes was asking about the insurance policy on any car someone would have to see if there was a named driver on it.

"We've heard of a woman questioned as to why she could afford Sky TV. It causes a real sense of humiliation, that you're a beggar.

One of the overarching things that often comes up, is that the absent father is never called on but the woman is.

"You have the child, so you face inspection, but no one pulls the man's house apart if he doesn't pay his maintenance.

"One woman documented that after leaving an abusive relationship and felt she was stalked by an inspector who sat outside her home constantly.

"What comes across is it's down to the individual inspector, there doesn't seem to be any guidelines for them."

She said all the power is in the hands of the inspectors.

"The point is women will not come forward in case they stop your payment. The power is in their hands.

"We often hear that the money will not be stopped, but redirected to another post office, and the women contact welfare panicked about their payments, they're told it was changed because they wanted them to come into the office for a meeting, instead of just writing and asking them.

When you're waiting for that money, its psychological torture, it's punishment. People are afraid to say anything. They would not do this to any other group.

The State's spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), recently told the Department of Social Protection to review its approach to investigating suspected fraud or errors in the benefits system.

The C&AG report found that some welfare recipients, such as one-parent family payments, were subject to "high review intensity" but the average overpayments which were around €72 were low compared other benefit payments.

However, schemes with low levels of review, like the state pension had high levels of overpayment.

A total of 8% of pension claimants were reviewed in 2019, with 20% of the probes detecting an overpayment - the average sum standing at €770.

After The Irish Examiner detailed incidents of searches of women's wardrobes, homes and bathrooms, as well as a culture of intimidation and harassment to the Department of Social Protection, a spokesman said: "In relation to your specific query, inspections of the nature outlined should not be happening.

"If there are specific examples, we would ask that these be brought to the department’s attention. The department has in place a Customer Charter and a Code of Conduct, which set out what to expect when you contact, or are contacted by the department.

"All staff are expected to adhere to the Code of Conduct. The Department has a complaints procedure for any customer who feels they were not treated in an appropriate manner."

It was degrading. He followed me to school

Niamh, Cork

All I can say it was degrading to be honest. One fella used to park outside my house before the school run and follow me to the school and in the evening if I went out to get coal or anything he'd be there too. 

I was so scared, I was out in the country on my own with three kids.

I started talking to other single mothers and they told me who he was. I told him he had no right into my house when he turned up at my door.

I was told after my second child 'So, you expect us to pay for your kids now not him?' They threatened me with taking my payment away if I didn't take my ex to court, it was so stressful.

We made a complaint and eventually we found out he was fired for abusing his power.

One man turned up every week for six weeks, he would turn up. I had complained about him too and heard there had been several about him already made.

Welfare knows about them. We don't know who they are, they could be anyone. Once when I attended a meeting they asked me how I got there, because I didn't have a car and asked to see my brother's insurance policy.

It's mental the stuff they ask you. I came off it (social welfare) once, me and my partner were giving it a go, and when I went back on it, it was a nightmare. It was so old fashioned, it was like: 'You've made your bed'.

I'd love to be out working but I can't afford childcare, they make you feel a beggar, and then you put off dealing with them and they stop your money.

I'm reviewed every year, sometimes twice, despite not changing anything in years.

They went through my underwear

Laurielee, Dublin

I suffer from mental health problems and when my third child was three-months-old, being alone with three kids, I had a breakdown. 

While in the hospital they said I wasn't trusted to be alone with my children at night so I needed to have someone with me in my property.

My old boss asked her son to move into the house because I needed someone there with me. He moved in but worked shifts all day, there was nothing romantic in it.

One day, two women from Social Welfare came barging into the house, they checked the garden shed, the kitchen drawers, behind the sofa.

File picture: PA
File picture: PA

They went into the baby's room, asked how I paid for the cot and pram, how I paid for her clothes.

They went into my room and told me to leave. They opened my underwear drawer. They went through it with a fine-tooth comb.

They have that badge and they think they can do anything, belittling people. I was so vulnerable at the time, I think I would've done away with myself, but I had to keep going for the kids.

They made me feel so small. It was like playing with my mental health. I felt like I let my kids down.

When they found his stuff, they cut off my rent and I eventually ended up sleeping in my car with my children. I was homeless for two years before I got somewhere. 

I'm only speaking about this because I don't want anyone else to have to go through it.

I am physically sick about dealing with the social welfare

Darina, Dublin

My son was three when I first applied, I had worked all my life and was catapulted into the social welfare system and it as horrific - that's the only word.

I was told when I applied for rental allowance I was questioned as to why I had a car, which I had used for getting to work.

I was 28-years-old and was told I wasn't suitable for rent supplements because my parents had a house and I could go live with them.

I had nowhere to go, I ended up in the hospital a few days later after my first panic attack, I know it was because of that meeting. The psychological damage is huge.

When I eventually got on the lone parent payment, the first inspector came to my house and told me I wouldn't get it anymore if started 'sleeping with someone'.

I said that was crazy and he said again: 'The payment will be stopped if you do, so it's up to you'. They would say things like: 'You went off and got pregnant'.

Any form of happiness in meeting someone from then on would be a business transaction, knowing if I started dating they'd take the money away, so I didn't for years.

They would come and inspect the house, to see what's there, they go around the whole house, inspecting every room. I was lucky, I was relatively left alone but after a local man began driving and collecting my son from training, the inspector brought it up, he alleged we were together, when I went into for interview he said: 'We heard you're with someone'.

They demanded my child's father's name, and even when I told them his name wasn't even on the birth certificate, they wouldn't stop. It was traumatic.

I am physically sick thinking about ever having to deal with the social welfare service again.

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