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Saturday 24 February 2018

Social welfare fraud is costing department €1.1m each week

Crisis: Sean Fleming says fraud is totally unacceptable Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Crisis: Sean Fleming says fraud is totally unacceptable Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Mark O'Regan

Mark O'Regan

The social welfare system continues to haemorrhage cash with overpayments now running at €1.1m a week due to fraud and human error, new figures reveal.

It means that the Department of Social Protection is losing €169,000 a day.

In 2014, the authorities were owed around €124m in overpayments - with recipients being overpaid an average of €1,400.

Some €86m of this money was subsequently recovered by the Department of Social Protection - but figures show €38m still has to be clawed back on behalf of the taxpayer.

In 2013, approximately €127m went to the wrong people, with €70m recovered by the department following an examination of accounts.

Documents obtained by the Sunday Independent under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the majority of overpayments, over 85pc, are as a result of those on welfare failing to report changes in their circumstances.

But as much as 5pc is the result of human error by staff.

A spokesman stressed the figures involved amount to less that 0.7pc of total department spending, which in 2014 stood at €19.5bn.

Overall, the department made some 83 million payments in that year.

Out of a total of €124m in overpayments, some €52m was due to suspected fraud, while €49m was due to genuine error on the part of recipients.

Nearly €5m was overpaid due to administrative errors.

In total, €524m in overpayments were made in the past five years.

A spokesman said the recovery of outstanding money is ongoing, and that those not entitled to financial assistance, have a "liability" to pay it back.

He added that those who refuse to engage with the department will have their "debt" marked on their record, and any outstanding amounts will be deducted from any future social welfare payments.

It can also be collected from any "remaining estate" held by a social welfare recipient. He stressed effective "debt recovery" is among the department's top priorities.

Tens of thousands of audits are carried out by the Department of Social Protection each year on those receiving benefits with the most serious cases of fraud pursued through the courts.

Up to the end of September last, 158 cases were finalised in court. Of these, 12 received suspended sentences and two received prison sentences.

During the same time there were 588 cases at various stages of the prosecution process.

A successful outcome has been achieved in 143 cases and the majority of these people received fines. Meanwhile, there has been a significant increase in the number of tip-offs from the public of suspected fraud since the economic crisis hit in 2008.

That year, just 1,044 reports were received by the department - but by 2011 that number swelled to 16,917.

Reports peaked at 28,022 in 2012, falling to 24,720 in 2013. In 2014, the Department of Social Protection received 18,866 welfare fraud complaints and 16,456 last year.

It is the policy of the Department of Social Protection to investigate all reports of possible fraud and abuse.

However, a payment is not automatically suspended or stopped, solely on the basis of an anonymous tip-off.

Fianna Fail's Public Expenditure spokesman Sean Fleming said the party had a "no nonsense" approach to fraudulent behaviour.

"Fraud is totally unacceptable and it must be done away with . . . overpayments must be paid back in full."

Sunday Independent

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