Social welfare - Fraud hits the most vulnerable

THE great majority of people realise and accept that anyone dependent on social welfare payments is not in an enviable position.

Most of us realise that these payments are not easily given and do not support much more than a very basic, frugal existence.

Far, far more people — Irish and otherwise — than would wish to have become reliant on the welfare system. For many, especially those who never believed they might be unemployed, it is a traumatic experience.

For Department of Social Welfare staff this great new influx has made their jobs far more demanding and stressful than heretofore.

Despite all the great and sometimes entertaining urban legends about what people are prepared to do to qualify for social welfare payments, most of us realise that living on welfare is neither easy nor uplifting.

None of this means, though, that the great cost of our social welfare system does not cause a pause for a moment to wonder how watertight the system is.

The figures are staggering and a considerable proportion — about one third — of all Government expenditure goes on social welfare. In his budget barely six months ago Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said spending on social welfare will grow by 8.4% to €19.6 billion this year. Like all the other suppositions in that budget it may be well off the mark by now, and this afternoon’s emergency budget may even contain a freeze in welfare payments, possibly means testing, or even a cut in some schemes.

What we do know is that 10% of social welfare claimants investigated in a targeted spot check have had payments suspended. The vast majority of the suspensions involved non-Irish nationals.

Because of this the Department of Social and Family Affairs has said photo IDs will be required if welfare payments are to be collected at post offices in future.

Of course it would be much better if everyone had a secure national identity card for these and other occasions when individuals interact with state services.

The department also conceded that thousands of planned anti-fraud checks did not take place last year because inspectors were diverted to process soaring unemployment benefit claims.

Though this is entirely understandable it has turned out to be an expensive necessity.

Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin had set a target of around €536 million in fraud savings for the year, but managed just €476m.

These are significant figures, but the fact that one-in-10 of the inspections made resulted in suspension of payments suggests that there are very many people more making false claims. It might be stretching it to suggest that this ratio applies right across all welfare payments, but if it is even half that it is a huge sum in the context of today’s crisis. It is, of course, a cause for concern that the figure should be so high no matter what the circumstances.

The fact that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of reports made by members of the public who allege social welfare fraud by neighbours and acquaintances in the first few months of this year suggests that the mood is right for a sterner attitude to the fraudsters.

They, after all, jeopardise the position of the weakest in our society by undermining our welfare system.


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