Middle-class families get visits from child-benefit inspectors
SOCIAL welfare inspectors are calling to the homes of families to check they are not falsely claiming child benefit.
The crackdown on abuse of the benefit has been stepped up significantly, with inspectors carrying out random checks and demanding proof the claimed-for children really exist.
Middle-class families and professionals including a Fine Gael TD are among those who have already been checked.
In all, as many as 1,000 are expected to be visited before Christmas.
They will be asked to provide passports or birth certificates for the children receiving social welfare at the address.
The checks are completely random and will hit families regardless of class or where they live and are not based on information about the likelihood of social welfare fraud in a household.
The campaign is designed to establish the level of fraud in the €2bn child benefit bill.
Social Protection Minister Joan Burton plans to reduce the payment in the Budget by imposing a flat rate cut of up to €40 a month.
Top-up payments will only be for poorer families with low incomes.
Department of Social Welfare officials admit people have found it "strange" to get a home visit. Several have contacted them to ask why they were singled out. But the department said the visits were random and necessary to carry out a proper survey.
Meath West TD Ray Butler said inspectors had recently called to his home in Trim, Co Meath, to ask about child benefit claims for his three daughters and one son.
"My wife was at home at the time. They did ask for ID and they had the names of all the children. We had birth certs and passports as well. We were all accounted for," he said.
He is among a growing number of TDs who have come out to publicly air their concerns about middle-class families being "squeezed" by the looming child benefit cuts.
The Irish Independent yesterday revealed how Fine Gael faces a backbench revolt over fears that middle-class families cannot take more financial pain.
But speaking about the random checks, he said: "I welcome this. Everything should be checked. If there is fraud going on and people are claiming for children who are not in the house, it should be stopped immediately."
Mr Butler said he believed that such house visits should be carried out "all the time" to reduce child benefit fraud, which would ease the pressure on the overall social welfare budget.
The latest crackdown began after the Comptroller and Auditor General warned "more frequent" fraud surveys were necessary.
The last intensive child benefit fraud crackdown was carried out eight years ago, finding a much higher risk of fraud among non-Irish families.
About 14pc of 500 non-Irish families visited were making fraudulent child benefit claims, compared to 1.7pc of the 500 Irish families visited. The overall fraud rate was 2.3pc.
The results of the new crackdown are not available yet because the household visits have not been completed.
It represents a big change on the usual method of combating child benefit fraud. Last October, the department sent out around 60,000 letters asking families if they were still eligible for child benefit.
It cut off the payment to 5,600 parents for failing to respond. New figures from the department show that 4,974 of these parents got back in touch and are getting their child benefit again, while payments to the remaining 626 remain suspended.
It also confirmed that there had been cases where parents had emigrated and not notified the department.
The department is currently carrying out another crackdown which began last month. It involves home visits to 1,000 people claiming jobseeker's allowance payments of €188 per week.