Refreshing to hear of welfare savings

With people being clobbered by draconian cutbacks and facing a raft of new taxes, it is heartening to hear the success of a Government campaign against social welfare fraud, effectively saving €669m last year and aiming at savings of €710m this year.

What is especially reassuring about this welcome announcement by Minister Joan Burton is that public attitudes towards social welfare fraud have undergone a sea change. Gone are the days when this crime –— and that’s the correct term — was greeted with knowing nods, winks, and grudging admiration for certain people who knew the system inside out and could “get away with it”.

Not any more. The Department of Social Welfare received an unprecedented flood of tip-offs about suspected fraud as reports poured in from 28,000 people up and down the country. By alerting official investigators to what was going on in a neighbourhood they proved the importance of local knowledge by, for instance, focusing attention on a family engaged in welfare fraud if an expensive car was parked outside the door.

Thanks to the positive public response to the campaign, the amount of money not spent on fraudulent claims during the past year exceeded the original target by €20m. The unexpected scale of these savings convinced Ms Burton to set an even more ambitious goal for the 2014 tracking down of fraudsters who engage in scams that include the adoption of multiple identities and addresses.

Much of the spectacular success of the clamp-down is due to wide-ranging probes into fraud and abuse. They included a special investigation unit manned by departmental officials with powers to quiz Irish people living abroad but repeatedly passing through Ireland’s air and sea ports, a cynical form of welfare tourism involving a series of false claims and deliberate deception. However, word soon gets around when an agency of the State applies personal pressure to people who fully deserve to be brought before the courts.

That the Government is making progress on the fiscal front was acknowledged yesterday as compliments were showered on Ireland’s gradual recovery by Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. It would be churlish indeed not to welcome her unstinting praise.

Yet, international plaudits are no substitute for the delivery of jobs for long queues of long-term unemployed or a modicum of respite from the crushing privation which many have to endure. With a property tax looming, it is high time people were given some measure of relief. It would also give the Coalition a badly needed PR boost, if some of the €669m which was not spent on fraudulent claims, a saving by any other name, were to be passed on to those who need it most.

The savings could, for example, be used in staving off child benefit cuts, assuaging the fears of severely disabled people who are now worrying about mobility grants, helping families pay for childcare, or simply putting food on the table.

A humane gesture would help restore the image of an administration seemingly detached from the realities of life in Ireland today and increasingly perceived as more concerned with fiscal matters than the plight of people worn down by grinding hardship.

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