70 suspected cases of welfare fraud reported every day
Almost 70 people reported a suspected case of welfare fraud to the authorities every day last year, new figures show.
The rate of anonymous tip-offs is still running at 50pc more than the number of reports just two years ago.
The news comes as the Department of Social Protection is preparing a new anti-fraud strategy and is also forging ahead with plans to second 20 gardai to its fraud investigation team of 91 inspectors.
The recruitment of gardai, who will retain their policing powers, drew widespread criticism of Social Protection Minister Joan Burton when it was announced last October. But she said that the fight against welfare fraud is a priority to safeguard taxpayers' money.
The secondment of gardai is a trial scheme and the closing date for applications is next Monday, March 24. It is expected the gardai will be deployed in Dublin, Dundalk, Letterkenny, Monaghan, Longford, Galway, Cork, Limerick, Navan and Sligo.
The latest statistics from the Department of Social Protection show that it received almost 25,000 anonymous tip-offs about suspected welfare fraud in 2013. This is down from the high point of over 28,000 anonymous reports in 2012 but still up markedly on the 16,000-plus reports received in 2011.
Officials stress that an anonymous tip-off is only the start of an investigation process and nobody is cut off until a clear breach of the welfare rules is established.
"In some cases the reports involve people not breaking any rules – for example somebody receiving a one-parent family allowance and working a set number of hours as permitted by the rules," one official told the Irish Independent.
The Department of Social Protection does not want to publicise just how many anonymous tip-offs lead to detection of welfare cheating. But officials insist that the anonymous tip-offs are an important part of the battle against welfare fraud.
The department is currently updating its 2011-2013 anti-fraud strategy and a new plan is due for publication shortly. Staff at the department's Special Investigations Unit already work closely with the Revenue Commissioners and gardai.
Officials said they pay particular attention to schemes deemed most likely to be abused and also to sectors where casual work is most prevalent and therefore more likely to involve people working and illegally claiming.
The department targeted airports earlier this year to identify people resident outside the country but returning to illegally claim welfare.
Officials estimate that up to €1.3m was saved in these initiatives and those detected were both Irish and foreign nationals. Periodic road checkpoints also revealed numbers of people working and claiming welfare.
Officials at the department have rejected claims that they engage in 'racial profiling' which targets foreign nationals more than Irish people in their investigations. But they stressed that they have an obligation to be visible in their work to ensure that they deter as much as they detect cases of welfare cheating.