This article appeared in the Sunday Business Post on Sunday April 30th:
Very few of us would hesitate to report a crime. The same approach should apply to the crime of welfare fraud.
Every euro saved is money that can be given to a genuine person in need, or handed back to the taxpayer from where it came. The total budget for the Department of Social Protection is €20 billion a year. Even at low levels, fraud carries a considerable cost to us all.
Just to give one small example: another €10 million saved from fraud would allow us to increase the Back to School Clothing and Footwear allowance by 25% and help more low-income families with the cost of kitting out children for school in August. That’s why it’s so important to ensure that the money goes where it is supposed to go.
The Department takes fraud very seriously and is determined to do all it can to tackle it. The introduction of the Public Service Card has made a big difference, by helping to combat identity fraud and double-claiming. We regularly share data with other organisations like the HSE, Revenue, probate office and third level colleges. We have an excellent data analytics section, which uses high-level technology to identify likely cases of fraud. Our Special Investigations Unit carries out detailed investigations and operates with assistance from 15 Gardaí who have been seconded to the Department to work alongside our own staff. They are really effective.
Taking this a step further, we launched a new public awareness campaign encouraging people to report welfare fraud. It includes people who claim a payment they are not entitled to and employers who pay people in cash to avoid contributing to the PRSI fund, thereby denying their own staff sick pay, maternity benefits and future pension entitlements.
We want people to ask themselves: is it right to pay staff under the counter? Is it right to continue claiming welfare for a little longer if they are no longer entitled? Is it right to give false information about your means? We think that most people will realise the answer is always ‘no’.
Last year my Department made estimated savings of €506 million through a combination of control and anti-fraud measures. This figure recognises that if a fraudulent payment or overpayment is not stopped, it will continue, and represent a greater loss to the taxpayer. There were 950,000 reviews and investigations of individual social welfare claims in 2016.
Members of the public have been able to report welfare fraud for many years, by calling the hotline or over the internet. Last year, we received around 18,000 reports from members of the public, and conducted around 20,000 actual investigations arising from these. Our activities resulted in 350 cases being sent for prosecution of welfare fraud, and identified and cut off areas that were being exploited.
As is the case with all fraud, it’s only possible to reclaim some of money taken. €41 million in fraudulent payments were identified in 2016 with the Department actively pursuing these funds. The actual level of fraud is much higher given that much remains undetected. This new publicity campaign will help us to determine the true level of fraud more accurately.
The extent of fraud also varies across payment types. All reports are treated as anonymous and are followed up.
Some claim that the campaign targets people on social welfare. That’s nonsense. The campaign targets only people who are defrauding the welfare system by claiming benefits illegally, or claiming more than they are entitled to.
The general public clearly agrees, because there has already been a strong response to the campaign and the number of online and phone reports have doubled since the campaign was first announced.
As for those arguing about the exact level of fraud, they are missing one undeniable fact – millions is defrauded from the taxpayer through the social welfare system every week. It’s a crime and cracking down on it frees up much-needed resources to expand entitlements or to return to taxpayers. It also belies a view among opponents that social welfare recipients are often dishonest. I know they are not and that’s why they are supporting the campaign too by making reports.
There have also been suggestions that instead of targeting welfare fraud, the Government should target something else. That kind of attitude of ‘whataboutery’ gets us absolutely nowhere. If you follow it to its conclusion, then nothing would ever get done because there would always be something better you could do instead.
Sinn Féin’s opposition to the anti-fraud campaign is to be expected. It’s central to that party’s political ideology that some people should get everything for free, and that it should all be paid for by everyone else through general taxation.
We all know what that means. General taxation is the far-left’s code for higher taxes on middle Ireland. These are your tax euros that Sinn Féin would happily squander on someone else’s waste and fraud than put to good use.
Sinn Fein has clearly lost the core argument, which is why it is now attacking the methodology employed by the Department of Social Protection to calculate the control and anti-fraud savings. Let me remind them that the Department’s approach was devised with the CSO and is based on models used in the UK and Australia.
If this campaign succeeds there will be more resources available to return to the taxpayer or to allocate to people most in need. That’s the outcome I want and expect.