Innocent bystanders take hits in shoot-out at Coalition corral

The problem with taking on a bad guy in a gunfight is that innocent people are almost always caught in the crossfire.

It is true in Westerns, a near certainty in war, and just as accurate when it comes to state benefits.

Since the economic slump became a crisis, the State has rightly clamped down on welfare claim fraudsters — an area seen as easy money when the country was flush with cash.

However, while shooting down illegitimate claims, the Department of Social Protection’s guns have also been inadvertently turned on entirely innocent people.

New figures show that, whether Minister Joan Burton admits it or not, it is increasingly difficult to access disability allowance — a long-term version of disability benefit centred on life-long conditions.

Since the recession began, an anti-welfare fraud programme initiated by Fianna Fáil and continued by the Coalition has rightly cut back on those who should not be receiving state aid.

However, in the process, one in three claims is now rejected and nine in 10 initial rechecks draw the same conclusion, despite a surge in genuine cases eventually forcing help to be given.

Either as an accident caused by the ongoing push to purge false claims, or as a deliberate tactic by a broke country to save cash, the situation is resulting in year-long average appeal waits and delayed payments to those in genuine need. And, it has been claimed, a similar problem occurs when domiciliary care allowances for families with disabled children end and disability allowance applications by the now-adult child begin.

A recent internal department “fraud and error” report said 175 of 1,011 random claims examined should not have been given the €188 weekly maximum disability allowance, although an unspecified number of these “terminations” were reinstated on appeal.

Tackling fraudsters who are unfairly taking advantage of a taxpayer-funded system is laudable. But failing to accept that approach also blocks a growing number of genuine claims takes away much of the policy’s shine.

It is, of course, ironic that concern over innocent disability allowance applicants getting caught in a Government vs fraudsters crossfire has itself led to a political shootout betweenFianna Fáil, Labour — and backbench Fine Gael TDs.

Among the innocent victims are, as ever, the wider reasons for why it is happening.

Since the initial disability allowance refusal figures were revealed via a parliamentary question by Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan, Ms Burton has come under fire from her coalition colleague and Fine Gael TD Simon Harris.

That is the same Fine Gael whose joint cost-cutting agenda with Labour is a key factor for the disability allowance problems.

Fianna Fáil’s social protection spokesman, Willie O’Dea, keen to portray himself as the John Wayne of this shoot-out, has also dragged his crosshairs on to Ms Burton, insisting access rules have changed.

That is the same Fianna Fáil whose actions in Government have made widespread cutbacks essential — and which itself saw an initial disability allowance refusal rate rise of 40% to 54% between 2008 and 2010, double the coalition’s increase.

In the wild west of austerity measures and shoot-outs, few can fail to have blood on their hands. The best thing genuine applicants caught in the crossfire can do right is run for cover, and hope they survive.

Just like the Indians in Westerns. And we know what happened to them.


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