Friday 19 January 2018

Jail scam: Prisoners claiming welfare while behind bars

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

THOUSANDS of prisoners have been illegally claiming millions of euro in social welfare because their benefits are not automatically cut off when they are sent to jail.

An Irish Independent investigation reveals that almost 2,000 prisoners managed to fraudulently claim welfare payments last year while they were in jail -- or even on the run.

It is the first time that figures detailing the extent of the fraud have been released.

The revelation comes after Social Protection Minister Joan Burton -- who took over in March -- promised to mount a "zero tolerance" crackdown on fraud.

It is up to prisoners to notify the department when they are sent to prison because it is illegal for them to claim welfare.

Of those checked last year, it was found that 1,661 prisoners were claiming payments while in jail and a further 381 were getting payments while on the run.

This accounted for one in five of all prisoners checked.

It is understood that they are able to receive payments such as jobseekers' allowance because they are getting family members to collect the money or are getting it paid directly into their bank accounts. In some cases, relatives have posed as prisoners to collect welfare.

Ms Burton told the Irish Independent that the cross-checking of claims with the Irish Prison Service was a "very efficient and effective" way of tackling welfare fraud.

"I am committed to a zero tolerance approach to social welfare fraud. A key objective of my department's fraud control strategy is to ensure that the right person is paid the right amount of money at the right time," she said.

Her department shut off the payments to prisoners after detecting them, but could not provide figures on the value of how much social welfare had already been fraudulently claimed. However, it saved €400,000 in this area last year.

The department gets records from the prison service three times a year but it now wants them more frequently.

It said it was seeking the money back from prisoners -- and would deduct it from any future welfare payments after their release from jail.

Between 2005 and 2010, the department cross-checked almost 30,000 prisoner records and found that around one in six prisoners (5,270) was claiming social welfare. A total of €3.28m has been saved since 2006 due to the detection of fraudulent claims in prison.

Prisoners claiming social welfare could be prosecuted and fined up to €2,500.

Meanwhile,as a result of cross-checks on other official databases:

•More than 800 students had welfare payments reduced or withdrawn last year. The majority were claiming dole while attending college.

•More than 450 people are being investigated for claiming welfare on both sides of the Border.

•Around 100 taxi drivers have had their payments cut or halted -- leading to a saving of €1.13m. The department is continuing its investigation into around 13,000 drivers.

•Sixty fathers are being pursued for child maintenance payments.

Irish Independent

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