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Accounts to be scanned in welfare fraud crackdown

SUSPECTED social-welfare cheats will have their bank accounts scanned under new anti-fraud powers.

Welfare inspectors can also now mount checkpoints without gardai and question car occupants. And they can transfer information to other countries as part of investigations into welfare fraud.

The move to crack down on welfare cheats follows criticism of the amount of taxpayers' money that is being lost to fraudsters.

Social and Family Affairs Minister Mary Hanafin has denied claims that €2bn is being lost in social-welfare fraud every year. Her estimate is that it is just 1pc of the budget -- about €440m.

But the new powers were introduced as part of the legislation, passed through the Dail last Friday, which saw cuts to child benefit and 38 social-welfare payments.

Inspectors from the Department of Social Welfare can finally get details of bank accounts of suspected welfare cheats. But the officers must have reason to believe the individual is engaging in welfare fraud.

The access to bank accounts will allow officials to check if people claiming benefits have alternative sources of income.

But it will also mean being able to check if foreign nationals are largely withdrawing money from outside the state.

This will make it easier for the department to track cases of people living in the North and claiming welfare under false addresses in the Republic. And it also will reduce cases of abuse of welfare payments by non-nationals.

Social-welfare inspectors can also mount checkpoints with customs officers, without the need for a garda presence.

The law also provides that an inspector can question any occupants of a car to check whether they are working while also claiming social welfare payments.

Activities

Ms Hanafin said the Government was clamping down on the activities of welfare fraudsters. "That is why we have clamped down on the activities of such individuals. That is why the bill contains new measures which will assist the department in combating fraud.

"We have ensured that we will do whatever is necessary to work with agencies in this and other jurisdictions to combat fraud because, after all, taxpayers' money is at stake," she said.

But Ms Hanafin's department also revealed last week that it didn't have the legal powers to entirely stop state payments to social-welfare cheats.

Fine Gael's Brian Hayes had submitted questions to Ms Hanafin about why those who cheated the system did not have their social-welfare payments stopped.

Ms Hanafin responded by saying that people who fulfilled the criteria for a social-welfare payment were entitled to receive it, even if they had been convicted of social-welfare fraud.

"Discontinuation of such entitlement where a person had been fraudulently claiming in respect of a previous period would require specific legislative provision," an official wrote.

Department officials also pointed out cutting off people found guilty of fraud from supplementary welfare allowance - which is given out by community welfare officers in cases of need -- would have consequences.

"Such a step would represent a major change to the underlying principles of the supplementary allowance scheme."

Mr Hayes said: "I think it's a bit of a joke. The argument I would make is that the system needs a total overhaul to deal with this fraud."

There are currently 1.2 million social-welfare payments made each week with two million new claims being processed every year.

Irish Independent