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Tuesday 12 December 2017

€50m welfare payouts, from cradle to grave

COMMITTEE: Eoghan Murphy
COMMITTEE: Eoghan Murphy

DANIEL McCONNELL Political Correspondent

TAXPAYERS will fork out almost €50m this year to provide buggies, prams, furniture, funerals, floor coverings and kitchen appliances for welfare claimants.

Details of the payouts have emerged as the Sunday Independent reveals that Social Protection Minister Joan Burton's department has failed to recoup more than two-thirds of overpayments to welfare recipients so far this year, totalling €13m.

And separate unpublished documents from Social Protection secretary general Niamh O'Donoghue reveal that €3 out of every €10 spent in the private rental market in Ireland is paid for by the State.

According to the documents sent to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the €47.5m provision for 2013 will cover claims for "household appliances, furniture, floor covering, bedding, adult and baby clothing, travel, cots and prams as well as assistance with funerals and burials".

The department can make a "single exceptional needs payment to help meet essential, once-off and unforeseen expenditure" that the recipient could not meet from their normal income.

The documents show that recipients can claim €310 for cookers, €250 for fridge/freezers and washing machines, €150 for wardrobes, €180 for a double bed, €120 for a single bed, and between €100 and €150 for prams and cots.

But applicants can also claim €120 for a kitchen table and €40 for each kitchen chair, €100 for a chest of drawers and even €10 per square metre for "floor covering".

Last year more than 65,000 payments were made – 43,500 received average payments of €150 for adult or child clothes; 12,500 were given average payments of €120 for religious ceremonies; 9,500 got average payments of €183 for a pram or cot.

However, concern has been raised by Fine Gael members of the PAC who are adamant that any "potential abuse" of the system must not be tolerated.

PAC member and Fine Gael TD for Dublin South East Eoghan Murphy told the Sunday Independent that he raised the issue after hearing anecdotal stories about widespread abuse of the exceptional needs payments system.

"Of course we need exceptional payments for those who really need it. And it is important that local officers have discretion, but we absolutely have to shut the door on any potential abuse. I was concerned when I heard the stories and I heard how much money was involved," Mr Murphy told the Sunday Independent.

The documents also show that the spend on such exceptional needs payments has decreased by €15m since 2011, while spending on back-to-school clothing and footwear has fallen by over €41m in the same period.

Ms O'Donoghue's documents also reveal that between January and August, 23,460 social welfare cases have been reviewed for "suspected fraud or abuse of social welfare schemes".

Following such reviews, payments were ceased in 2,351 cases while in a further 518 cases, payments were reduced.

More alarmingly, out of a total of €47m savings that have been made until the end of August by the department's Special Investigation Unit, €17m was discovered to be as a result of overpayment to benefit recipients. Just €4.1m of that €17m has been recouped, meaning €13m remains lost to the Exchequer.

Ms O'Donoghue said that in 2013, almost 100,000 welfare recipients will receive rent supplement or mortgage interest supplement.

According to the figures, one-parent or two-parent families with three children in the Dublin area are entitled to receive up to €1,000 a month in rent supplement, while the maximum limits in rural counties are less than half that.

"The department currently funds almost 30 per cent of the private rented sector so it is essential that State supports for rents are continually kept under review and reflect current market conditions," Ms O'Donoghue wrote.

"The review process is to ensure that value for money is achieved while at the same time ensuring people on rent supplement are not priced out of the market," she added.

The documents show that already this year, 109,377 out of a total of 1,011,867 welfare claims have been disallowed, while a further 63,235 claims were withdrawn.

Sunday Independent

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