Dept of Social Welfare misleads regarding "welfare fraud" over payments


On 8/8/08, The Department of Social and Family Affairs (DSFA) issued a press release entitled “€238 million saved in first six months of this year through Welfare anti fraud crackdown.” A closer look at the operations of the DSFA reveals a slightly different story however. According to the 2007 Social Welfare Appeals Office (SWAO) Annual Report, 46% of appeals to the SWAO were successful. The chief appeals officer, Brian Flynn, is critical of social welfare deciding officers “applying the ‘fraud’ applications of the legislation in all cases involving overpayments”.

In other words, the DSFA is characterising many cases of overpayment as fraud when they are simply due to alleged changes in circumstances since the original decision was made. He also details inconsistencies in decision-making, non-application of relevant EU law and a number of administrative failures on the part of the DSFA, all of which would have resulted in incorrect decisions to stop payments.

For example, €37m was ‘saved’ on Illness claims. In many of these cases, the medical opinions of the claimants GP’s and consultants, based on extensive knowledge of the claimants circumstances, will have been overruled by a short, frequently inaccurate, assessment by a DSFA medical assessor. These decisions are often subsequently overturned by the SWAO. So, while it is impossible to be precise, it will certainly be the case that many of the “fraudulent” claims discovered so far this year will be reinstated after appeal.

Notwithstanding the DSFA breaking its own rules and guidelines in many of the cases brought to appeal last year, the rules and guideline themselves are frequently unfair. In March 2006, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs launched a “Major Government Discussion Paper on Proposals for Supporting Lone Parents”.

Amongst other things, it proposed to “end the cohabitation rule by making it neutral in terms of influencing people's basic choices regarding their living arrangements.” Over 2 years later, new minister, Mary Hanafin, is still promising to implement the proposals (Irish Times 11/8/08), yet nothing has happened.

The largest amount (€80m) ‘saved’ by fraud controls relates to lone parent claims, many disqualified on the basis of cohabitation. So, despite 2 successive government ministers lamenting the anti-family nature of their own department’s rules (Sunday Independent 27/27/08), the DSFA continues to trumpet the resultant benefits in fraud control. Mary Hanafin has also been very vocal on the need to train and up-skill young unemployed people.

However, if an individual declares at an interview with a social welfare inspector that they intend to commence a course in the near future, having paid heed to the good Minister’s advice, there is a strong likelihood that their unemployment payment will be cut as they are not “genuinely seeking work”. This can destroy that individuals chances of pursuing further education but will again be lauded by the DSFA as clamping down on ‘fraud’.

Given the level of doublespeak involved, when Minister Hanafin declared in the Irish Times (9/8/08) that there were no plans to cut welfare rates, it can only mean one thing. Surely enough, two days later Carl O’Brien, social affairs correspondent of the Irish times gives the game away, outlining how “the new changes could also help to save the State significant amounts of money.”

Also, despite the heroic efforts of the DSFA to uncover fraud where often none exists, they are still behind their yearly target of savings of €525m. Even if welfare rates themselves are not cut, it is likely that new and more ingenious ways will soon be discovered to disqualify individual claims, achieving the DSFA’s aims by stealth. It looks like many welfare recipients will be the victims of Celtic Tiger excesses

Issue 105 of Workers Solidarity Sept/Oct 2008

[PDF of southern edition of WS 105] [PDF of northern edition of WS 105]