Thursday 23 January 2020

Officers to join anti-fraud drive

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton revealed that a number of officers were being seconded to her department to support the crackdown
Social Protection Minister Joan Burton revealed that a number of officers were being seconded to her department to support the crackdown

About 20 gardai are to join a special anti-fraud operation in industrial estates and airports targeting benefit cheats.

Officers are being moved to a dedicated unit in the Department of Social Protection as it chases a target of 710 million euro (£601.4 million) in bogus welfare claims this year.

Surveillance will be increased on the back of 24 checkpoints operated in the first six months of this year which identified 37 fraud cases and saved 250,000 euro (£211,770).

Since June last year there have been 100 cases of welfare tourism detected at airports and claims linked to those have been stopped. Another 43 cases are being investigated.

The department saved 1.32 million euro (£1.12 million) from the increased vigilance at the airports.

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton said no level of welfare fraud can be considered acceptable.

"We will be taking on a number of gardai directly in the Department of Social Welfare for a period of time to concentrate on areas like airports - people who may still be coming in and out in relation to still claiming benefits," she said.

"That's 50-50 Irish people and people who come from abroad."

The minister added: "We will also be looking at areas like checkpoints in estates and on roads early in the morning as people who are otherwise claiming benefits are actually in fact going off to work either self- employed or working and not declaring it."

Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, said the Government must give assurances that Garda benefit fraud checkpoints are not influenced by racial profiling.

"There is no evidence of social welfare fraud being more prevalent amongst migrant communities and there is no reason why they should be singled out for special treatment as part of the new crackdown," she said.

"Fraud is indefensible and must not be tolerated. However, any measures to reduce it must be implemented across all communities."

Ms Burton's department revealed its special investigations unit, to which the 20 gardai will be seconded, also gathered information at checkpoints that has triggered further investigations.

The checkpoints have been used to identify motor tax evasion, road traffic irregularities or social welfare fraud in concentrated locations.

In one operation targeting lorry drivers in the Mid-West earlier this year three drivers were working and claiming.

One had been on an invalidity pension for four years and getting paid for his wife and children at 420 euro (£355) weekly. The second was living in Co Clare and working for haulage company in Meath and on the dole.

Similar checkpoints are to be extended to industrial estates.

Ms Burton has been under severe attack the day after the Budget, with dole payments for under- 25s down to 100 euro (£85) and other benefits being hit, including maternity rates cut to a flat level of 230 euro (£195) and the abolition of the telephone allowance for pensioners.

Ms Burton, in an interview on Newstalk, said claiming benefits was not the start to life that people should be subjected to.

"I think the worst start in life for a young person of 18 at the beginning of their adult life is to end up on their 18th birthday going down to the dole office and signing on," she said.

Ms Burton defended the Government's actions in trying to stem the unemployment crisis and claimed the numbers signing on will fall below 400,000 next week.

"This will see the Live Register at its lowest level since May 2009," she said.

About 100 young people protested outside Leinster House as the debate on the budget continued. The demonstration was backed by Siptu, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and youth unemployed among others.

Joe O'Connor, president of the USI, said the dole cuts will further marginalise young people with no job prospects.

"Young people, who have had nothing to do with the crisis this country now finds itself in, were punished in yesterday's Budget for past mistakes," he said.

"Many highly-skilled, highly-qualified young people who are unable to find work due to the lack of opportunities now face a reduction in their social welfare payments, and a lowering of their social floor."

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