'Welfare cheats' ad campaign a mistake, TDs told
The use of the term 'welfare cheats' in a high-profile anti-benefits fraud campaign spearheaded by Leo Varadkar was a "mistake", the boss of the Department of Social Protection has said.
John McKeon was challenged on the controversial campaign at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) after he told TDs fraud levels are relatively low and the overwhelming majority of welfare claimants are "open and honest".
The 'Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All' campaign was launched by then-social protection minister Mr Varadkar in April before he became Taoiseach. It pre-dates Mr McKeon's time at the department. He said most of the €110m in overpayments last year related to errors made by the department's customers rather than deliberate fraud.
Fianna Fáil TD Shane Cassells said the campaign effectively "sensationalised" the low levels of fraud. Mr McKeon blamed the media for this and said the aim had been to notify people of the conditions for claiming benefits, to deter fraud, and reassure the public the department is not ignoring the issue. Mr Cassells argued that it had potentially stigmatised welfare recipients.
The campaign cost €163,000 and Mr McKeon said it led to an increase in the reporting of fraud and savings of around €1m, which was "not to be sniffed at". He said the Department had learned from feedback criticising the messaging that "put the word cheat beside the word welfare".
Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane asked if it had been a mistake. Mr McKeon replied: "In retrospect I believe it was a mistake." He added that the campaign had been conducted on the back of "the best advice" from a marketing company.