THE Government's aggressive new approach to chasing overpaid dole money could push people into destitution, a human rights organisation has claimed.
Legal charity FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) has warned that new rules introduced by the State earlier this year, which allow it to rapidly recover any overpaid social welfare payments, could force people into poverty.
Under the new approach, people who have been overpaid social welfare in the past, even through no fault of their own, can have 15pc of their dole money docked every week.
This applies even to the most vulnerable – those who only receive Supplementary Welfare Allowance (SWA), the amount recognised by the Government as the bare minimum needed to survive.
SWA is currently €186 a week for a single person, so a 15pc reduction would cut this by about €28.
"This is the bare minimum that people can survive on, so the State should absolutely not go below this – regardless of fault. It is ruthless and risks forcing people into destitution," FLAC's director Noeline Blackwell told the Irish Independent.
She said that the approach is particularly punishing because benefit cheats are rarely the cause of social welfare overpayments. Two-thirds of the €92m lost in overpayments by the Department of Social Welfare last year were mistakes made by officials, not fraud.
"Sometimes there is fraud involved, but usually people are overpaid dole money through no fault of their own. The system is so complicated that it is department officials who most commonly make the mistake," said Ms Blackwell.
"But even if the overpayment was a result of blatant fraud, people's right to a very basic standard of living should not be infringed."
Her organisation is calling on the Government to protect this minimum standard of living in the next Budget.
"There needs to be a bottom line which people can't fall beneath, which is absolutely protected," said Ms Blackwell.
She added that the public would be more prepared to accept more cuts in the next Budget if they knew there was a minimum standard that people could be confident they would always receive.