Welfare claimants fear retribution if they complain about inspectors

Welfare claimants fear retribution if they complain about inspectors

An investigation by the Irish Examiner has found that many women who receive a lone parent payment report being "harassed", "stalked" and "bullied" by social welfare inspectors who turn up unannounced to their home. File Picture

Fear of retribution is contributing to a low number of complaints against social welfare inspectors, according to experts in the sector.

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

However, an investigation by the Irish Examiner has found that many women who receive a lone parent payment report being "harassed", "stalked" and "bullied" by social welfare inspectors who turn up unannounced to their home. 

Many have reported inspectors going through their wardrobes, drawers and quizzing them on how they pay for items such as baby clothes and Sky television.

There are a total of 277 Social Welfare Inspectors in the Department of Social Protection and, in addition, there are a further 98 officers assigned to the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), which "carries out a wide range of control activities and works closely with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners through the Joint Investigation Unit, with the Workplace Relations Commission and other compliance and enforcement agencies".

The total number of complaints made about DEASP Social Welfare Inspectors since 2012, when records began, has remained relatively steady until 2019. 

In 2012 there were 18 complaints, a dip in 2014 saw only eight complaints, and the figures remained around the same until 2019 when the number hit 31.

To date in 2020, there have been 15.

A major issue identified with social welfare is fear of retribution or payments being stopped as, for many people on certain payments, this is their only source of income and have dependents as well as themselves to consider.

Many of the women the Irish Examiner spoke to did not realise there is a mechanism to complain about inspectors and even fewer people said they felt aware of their rights.

Dr Joe Whelan a Lecturer at UCC in Applied Social Studies has researched the social welfare system for a number of years and says he would be surprised if the complaints were any higher.

"There is a sense that welfare is a scarce resource and you have to do what you can to hold on to it," he said. "

"It's about survival in a space where you're constantly being told you may not be entitled to it.

"There is a reluctance to complain informally or formally because that puts them at a disadvantage. 

"That came up strongly in my research, we call it 'impression management', trying to be a 'good' welfare recipient so you don't rock the boat.

"I'm not surprised it's low, I'd be surprised if it was higher, people are very reluctant to make complaints. I recognise it from my own research. 

It's a sense or feeling of how you're being treated. You're heavily scrutinized and it is a systemic problem, it comes with a certain type of culture.

Dr Whelan added that the government's 2017 'Welfare Cheats Cheat us All' campaign, famously fronted by then- Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has had a negative effect on many on social welfare.

"That's an imported discourse from the UK, and they imported it from the States, 'the welfare mother' narrative," he said. 

"It has crept into the Irish landscape and people I spoke to said it affected them very deeply.

"Many people were directly affected by that divisive campaign when social protection is supposed to be about solidarity, and it became this narrative of 'tout on your neighbour'. 

I haven't managed yet to speak to someone who is glowing in praise of their treatment or who made a formal complaint."

Dr Whelan noted that those who live in small towns would be even less likely to complain due to the proximity to the people who work in social welfare offices, and in larger cities it may be easier. 

However, it is still unlikely people ever come forward.

"The Community Welfare Officer has an incredible amount of discretionary powers. They can question anything and it's very intrusive and invasive.

"We know lone parents face the harshest restrictions, have to continuously provide bank statements, and undergo reviews."

Brid O'Brien, from the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, said: "That whole experience people have with the system is not great. People are not addressing it formally.

"People who take welfare rights queries are happy to go down that route but not to make formal complaints. 

"They have concerns about how it will come back to bite them. The implications of what happens after they do, they often fear it could make matters worse.

"The Irish Examiner report very much resonates with things that would arise in our advocacy services, in inspections whether it's lone parent or people on disability payments. 

"That sense of: 'I'm not believed, I'm up to no good' is very prevalent.

Even how they're engaged with leaves people feeling not being valued as a person or seen with suspicion. Not being seen as a person is a big thing we hear.

Hazel De Nortúin, a councillor for People Before Profit came off the lone-parent allowance after she was elected.

"My son was seven and I was pregnant, I was receiving rent allowance and the landlord had put the house up for sale," she said.

"I had been elected, and was called to see an inspector. I thought it would be a chat. 

"I explained I was coming off one parent payment because I was working now and told them I had a new baby, and she replied: 'We're well aware of that'."

She said she was told by the inspector that she was the subject of an investigation, was asked why she had not informed them of a new relationship, and that they were aware of income changes. 

"It was a new relationship, there had been no change, we didn't live together," she said adding the inspector said to her: "Do you expect us to pay for your lifestyle? Who is your baby's father? What is your new boyfriend's income and his address? We have photos of you outside his house, do you know he's on social welfare too? We have pictures of you from a few weeks ago in the park."

Ms De Nortúin said: "They said they had been to my house and saw through my window I had moved the furniture. They said if I had a partner all my payments would stop.

"My partner was on a widower's pension, they called him in for an interview and asked about me, and told him he would lose his payments if he had a relationship too. He refused to answer and they stopped his widow's pension anyway.

"In the end, we just walked away. I thought about complaining but what if something happens down the line and he has to go back for another payment? He'll always have a mark on his name, it would've opened a can of worms.

"I lost my job in the recession, in today's climate people are going back on, and I felt like if I might have to knock on their door again, there's a fear if you speak out then you're screwed if you ever need support again.

"I'm not surprised the numbers are low, it's such an adversarial approach. I've seen countless women in tears in their offices."

A spokesperson for The Department of Social Protection said their office "strongly refutes any suggestion that making a complaint would have an impact on a customer’s claim, entitlements, or future interactions with the Department".

“The Department also wishes to state that it meets regularly with community, voluntary and advocacy groups. No issue has been raised in any of these meetings relating to calls by our inspectors.”

'All he wanted was sex' — Garda statement reveals allegation against social welfare inspector

One complaint against a social welfare inspector, seen by the Irish Examiner through Freedom Of Information requests and Garda statements, outlines what one woman claims happened to her.

The woman details in her Garda statement that she was coming home from shopping with her young daughter when she found a man in her driveway. 

She states the man identified himself as a social welfare officer with an ID card from the local office, where she had previously lived and claimed benefits, and told her he had been sent by Fás (now dissolved and transferred to the new further education and training authority Solas). 

When she invited him in, he asked if she was aware of the conditions for claiming unemployment benefit. 

She confirmed she was and offered the man a cup of tea, which "he accepted". 

After this, she says he began asking who she lived with and if she "got on" with her boyfriend. When she walked to the fridge to get milk, she stood on the man's foot but says she remained steady on her feet until the man pulled her down into his lap. She jumped back up and began apologising, later stating she felt "in shock". 

File photo.
File photo.

After this, she began detailing her previous negative experience with her social welfare officer. After this incident, the woman alleges the officer said she "looked like she needed a hug", which she refused. The garda statement notes he persisted until the woman felt she had "no choice", as the man put his arms around her. She broke the hug, after which the man pulled his chair to hers and took her hands in his and said "flattering things". When she told the man she had things to do, he said he "didn't like to leave me when I was upset", but eventually left.

When the woman visited Fás after the incident, the manager told her that there was "no way" this officer had been acting on behalf of Fás, after which she went to her local welfare office where the manager could not tell her why this man had attended her home. The gardaí told the woman it was a matter for the Department of Social Welfare.

Documents released under FOI show that the then Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs began to investigate the incident which, if true, investigators labelled "sexual or professional misconduct". The woman told these investigators it was clear "all he wanted was sex".

The department interviewed the officer, who confirmed he was at the home alone, but denied any physical contact whatsoever, repeating that it "never happened" and "could not recall" if he asked about her boyfriend. He said the allegations were "the most vindictive and malicious thing" that had ever happened to him.

The woman repeatedly claims in statements that she was informed by the department that the officer had taken her data from a computer, had no official record of the visit, did not inform anyone of the visit and that the visit was not part of his regular duties.

The investigation concluded "there is no evidence to support or sustain the serious allegations of misconduct" and that the department was "satisfied that the officer was carrying out his official duties ... and had legitimate grounds for accessing" the woman's personal data.

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