Thursday, 1 March 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Joan Burton: Control savings are an estimate of the value of the various control activities across the Department’s schemes. They represent an estimate of the value of prevented future social welfare expenditure on claims that would have been incurred if the control work had not been carried out. Control savings are used as a performance indicator for year-on-year activities. They do not include any cases of departmental or clerical error, or any case in which a customer voluntarily told the Department of a change in his or her means or circumstances that resulted in an adjustment of his or her rate of payment. The control savings target for 2012 is €645 million. A further target of reviewing 945,000 individual welfare claims has been set. These targets will be kept under review over the course of the year.
Actual moneys are recovered when the Department assesses overpayment in individual cases and subsequently recovers such debt. If, following a review of a claim in payment, it is confirmed that a client is receiving a payment to which he or she is not entitled, or is receiving a payment at a higher rate than that to which he or she is entitled, a deciding officer makes a revised decision on the entitlement. Deciding officers decide the effective date of a revised decision, having regard to the new facts or evidence and the circumstances of the case. This can result in an assessment of overpayment. In 2010, total overpayment amounted to €83.4 million, which represented 0.41% of total departmental expenditure. Overpayment arising from activity suspected of being fraudulent amounted to €25.9 million in 2010. The overpayment figures for 2011 will not be released until they have been audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Social welfare fraud undermines public confidence in the entire system. It is unfair to other recipients of social welfare payments, to businesses that are run on a legitimate basis and to taxpayers. The fraud initiative 2011-2013 sets out a range of actions to combat fraud and abuse of the social welfare system and to ensure public confidence and trust in the system. These actions will be reviewed periodically and updated, as required, given emerging trends.
Deputy Barry Cowen: In 2010, the Department referred a total of 341 cases for legal proceedings under either social welfare or criminal justice legislation out of a total of 1.4 million people receiving payments. This represents 0.024% of claimants. Does the Minister accept, therefore, that the fraud statistics published by her Department are misleading in that they clearly imply an exorbitant level of fraud that is not statistically verifiable? The rhetoric and commentary in this regard is unfair, unjust and uncalled for. The people on the live register are hurting, not only financially but also mentally, in their efforts to maintain their family life and some form of normality against a backdrop of this cruel existence. This commentary and rhetoric must cease. I ask the Minister to comment on the fact that the numbers as issued by the Department are misleading.
Deputy Joan Burton: I am surprised by the Deputy’s statement because in my experience, most people in receipt of a social welfare income are very anxious that the small number of people who are scamming the system should be stopped in so far as this is possible. I hear this from pensioners and from unemployed people. I hear concerns expressed about employers who may be employing people under the counter, as it were, and in the shadow economy. If the Deputy has not heard this same concerns expressed, then I am a little surprised, to be honest. Most people who are in receipt of social welfare payments are utterly honest and they receive no more nor no less than their entitlement. However, some people are claiming entitlements to which they are not properly entitled. I do not make any apology for the Government giving a high priority to ensuring that social welfare payments go to people who are entitled to those payments and not to people who have no entitlement or who may be involved in other activities.
The Deputy referred to cases being brought to court. This happens in a very small number of instances because prosecution is ultimately a matter for the Garda Síochána and the Director of Public Prosecutions but there have been a number of cases, particularly involving people using multiple identities or submitting multiple claims for social welfare purposes. The courts have taken a very serious view in such cases of these activities.
Deputy Barry Cowen: I can only go by the statistical analysis and the information shows this percentage, 0.024%, of cases going through the legal process. Of course, abuse of the system cannot be condoned but I point out the fact that it is engaged in by only a minute percentage. This being the case — and given the confusion this figure has produced — has the Minister plans to create a more comprehensive and accurate detection system and also a system for publication regarding the various levels of savings made within the Department? This would avoid the confusion that a figure such as €645 million is an all-encompassing figure for fraud when this is not necessarily the case.
Deputy Joan Burton: I repeat that the figure of €645 million is the prevention of expenditure which would occur if checks and extensive checking were not undertaken to ensure that people were in receipt of the correct payments. The fraud initiative includes targeted reviews and examinations within areas which may be deemed to be a fraud risk. The most effective use of audit resources is to target at-risk areas. For instance, a targeted control project involving both former community welfare officers and social welfare inspectors took place in June 2011. Some 320 clients were visited, of whom 90 were called for further interview. A total of 43 clients had their payments suspended, 18 for non-attendance at interview, 16 for no longer being at the address stated and nine for non-compliance with requests to supply information. The savings generated in that case was €140,000. The Department of Social Protection, the Garda Síochána and the Revenue, co-operate in an investigation of those working on taxi ranks in order to identify people who are operating taxis who are not registered for PRSI or for taxation purposes and who may not be in possession of a valid taxi licence.
Deputy Clare Daly: The Minister would make Margaret Thatcher proud. Nobody is arguing that fraud should be tolerated but the Minister has elevated this issue to the extent that people who, through no fault of their own, may be in receipt of an inaccurate payment, are being demonised as people who are robbing the State, more or less. She speaks about protecting public money. It is also her duty to ensure that scarce resources and public workers are employed to the best effect. Her Department’s staff are out investigating malicious complaints in many instances when there is a backlog of payments waiting for people who are entitled to social welfare payments. This is neither a protection nor a good use of public money.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: The Comptroller and Auditor General said that the Department’s current practice of including all overpayments arising from control activity as bankable savings, is questionable. I will explain that control savings are where there are no controls and no inspections. Michael Taft said it would be like the gardaí estimating the number of murders that might take place over time if there was no police force. The figure of €650 million is inaccurate whereas the €20 million or €26 million is probably more accurate. All fraud is wrong. If that figure of €26 million is correct or if the Minister believes there is more, why have no additional social welfare inspectors been employed?
Deputy Mick Wallace: I agree with the Minister that it is very important to tackle fraud. For example, if two blocklayers are pricing a 50 m wall and one of them is signing on the dole illegally then it is an unfair playing field. Because of the manner in which the figures were presented, the right-wing media is liable to use the figures in the manner in which they were presented sometimes in order to paint the wrong picture. This is what happened a few weeks ago.
Deputy Joan Burton: Deputy Ó Snodaigh’s reference to the Garda Síochána is really important. We have all discussed that if there is an emphasis on community policing and if an estate is not allowed to be run down and if broken windows are repaired, then law-abiding citizens are more confident that everything is being done properly. Is the Deputy now saying that extra policing resources are a waste of time——
Deputy Joan Burton: ——an employer is competing with a business down the street which is employing people under the counter and in the shadow economy, that business has to compete against a business with an unfair advantage over a legitimate employer. There has to be some honesty in this regard. I repeat that the vast majority of people who have social welfare income support of any kind are paid exactly what they are entitled to, no more and no less. Thankfully, the vast majority of people are utterly honest. Does this mean that we should ignore people who are scamming or abusing the system? We have to maintain confidence in the system so that if people are scamming the system they are targeted. I put it to Deputy Daly that the best way to target fraud and abuse is to use good intelligence in order to identify high risk areas where there has been an identifiable risk of wrong. Ultimately, as the Department and the Revenue Commissioners roll out improvements in computer systems and the personal services card, we will be able to do a lot more checking and verification of identity at the point where people collect payments. We will also be able to match data so that if there is something ontoward, say, for instance it turns out that there are perhaps ten households claiming a payment of some kind from one address, this would suggest a possible audit would be required. This is modern auditing.
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