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Social welfare crackdown: Joan Burton’s new fraud measures

Social welfare cheats will be tracked down by an army of 600 inspectors in a bid to save the exchequer €625 million next year.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton revealed a clampdown on fraudsters who abuse the system will involve getting investigators back on the streets to quiz claimants and rogue employers.

Higher penalties for people caught working in the black economy, more inter-agency co-operation and a new photographic card are also among the measures being introduced to catch cheats.

Ms Burton said social welfare fraud is often perceived as a victimless crime but undermines public confidence.

"You need to target the areas that are most at risk and you need to send out a message that fraud is taken absolutely seriously in this country, that is is not tolerated," said Ms Burton.

"There is no such thing as an acceptable level of fraud.

"Any euro of fraud taken out of this department is at the cost of somebody like an old age pensioner and that is not acceptable."

Some 1.4 million people receive a range of social welfare payments each week, including 600,000 families getting child benefit. The country's social welfare bill is €21 billion euro – 40pc of Government expenditure.

Ms Burton said there had been no decision on whether payments would be slashed in the upcoming Budget.

The minister revealed that as unemployment soared in recent years, inspectors were moved in to processing claims. They will now be back on the street visiting claimants at home, she said.

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The fraud control plan aims to save €625 million in 2011, up €85 million euro on 2010.

It will involve sharing data with key agencies, including gardai, Revenue, the Taxi Regulator, HSE, the Prison Service and British customs officers.

Elsewhere the new Public Service Card, that will feature a biometric photograph and signature of a claimant, will target fraudsters claiming on multiple identities.

Ms Burton said more than 200 serious fraud cases were referred to the courts last year, while over 100 people have had their benefits cut by up to 44pc for not engaging in the system.

The department's special investigations unit also saved €3.2 million in 2010 by terminating claims of 308 people who lived outside the state.

Elsewhere a cleaning firm was discovered to have a number of employees with false identities, and a million euro was saved by quizzing workers on more than 400 construction sites.

Ms Burton said her department would continue to focus on employers as well as individuals.

"The provisional target for the number of employer inspections in 2012 and 2013 is in the region of 2,500 to 3,500 each year," she added.