Monday 21 January 2019

Do it for Leo's sake, rat out your neighbour

If you're inventing a fraud problem, Leo, you ought to at least get the technical bit right

CAMPAIGN: Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar launching the campaign combating welfare fraud. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
CAMPAIGN: Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar launching the campaign combating welfare fraud. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Last Friday afternoon, I went online to the Department of Social Protection's website - welfare.ie. There, I found the fraud tip-off page. A glaring red warning sign said there are criminals "cheating welfare". It says that last year the department saved €500m "thanks to people like you".

This is not true. That isn't savings recovered from cheats, and it doesn't come from tip-offs.

Then, in pursuit of my duty as a citizen of the Republic, I reported someone for abuse of social welfare. It felt good.

Frankly, being old fashioned, I'd be a little queasy if I had to ring an actual human and report someone and get them into trouble. Happily, you can now just anonymously fill in an online form.

Which is what I did.

Under "type of fraud" it gives you a drop-down menu.

I skipped "Working and claiming".

I skipped "Living with partner and claiming One-Parent Payment".

I skipped the other six varieties of fraud you're asked to report.

I ticked the ninth fraud option: "Other".

Then the name and address: Leo Varadkar, Leinster House. I filled in the rest of the form (sorry, lads, I don't know Leo's car registration, so I left that blank).

And in the special box I added details of Leo's abuse of social welfare: "Using public money to conduct a phoney anti-fraud campaign, to impress Fine Gael supporters and enhance his chances of becoming the next leader of the party."

For the past 10 days there have been posters all over the place, ads blaring across the airwaves. You're walking down the street and a bus goes past with a message from Leo on the side: "Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All".

The message, in a campaign costing a reported €204,000, is inescapable - your neighbours are crooks and liars. Rat them out.

So, that little bugger around the corner who's forever driving too fast, with his windows down, his lousy taste in music blaring - it's not hard to convince yourself he's on his way from doing a nixer to collecting the dole.

So, online, by phone, scribbled on bits of paper and posted to Mr Varadkar - every random suspicion, justified and not, is channelled to the Campaign For Leo.

And, repeatedly the stats are sent to the media, which broadcasts the latest figures the politicians have "saved". (Those journalists who are played like fiddles by politicians might ask themselves why they're given only the number of tip-offs - which means nothing - and not the number of genuine frauds disclosed by pissed-off, over-suspicious informants.)

Some politicians seem convinced there's a class of sponger out there who takes out of society far more than they put in. They seem to believe there's a pool of deadbeat, money-grubbing chancers who use every trick - legitimate and illegal - to line their pockets.

And, of course, the politicians are right.

These people are called tax dodgers.

Hundreds of millions of euro are drained from the economy each year by people who break the law and evade tax. On top of that, hundreds of millions more are swiped by people who employ specialist lawyers and accountants to locate loopholes in the tax laws.

It's long been my belief that when politicians have finished drawing up financial legislation they pass it to the Loopholes Section of the Department of Finance. There, an agreed number of loopholes are drilled into it, as arranged in meetings between departmental officials and lawyers representing the tax-dodging classes.

Yes, there is welfare fraud.

Sometimes, thieves go to some lengths to steal from the State. Mostly it's a few hundred here and there. Maybe someone loses their job, they're on the dole, they owe money, they get the odd nixer and they don't want to sign themselves off the dole because they don't know where the next nixer is coming from.

These are not people taking a shortcut to riches - they have given into temptation.

But, it's nothing we need get excited about. There are substantial "control measures" in place to police the rules, and 600 people specifically assigned to protect the system. (The money that would be lost if these measures were not in place is regularly described by politicians as "savings" by anti-fraud measures, as though it was somehow recovered from thieves. It's not.)

There's no epidemic of fraud against which we all need to be warned, with posters, radio adverts and accusatory buses.

Fraud is officially listed under "fraud and error" and by far the greater part of the losses are due to error - the welfare recipient's or the system's.

It might, for instance, be discovered that I've applied for and received a payment I'm not entitled to. It will be stopped.

But it may be clear my mistake means I haven't applied for the payment I am entitled to. And the correct payment will henceforth be paid instead of the one I claimed.

It's not fraud. It's not a problem.

Here's the Secretary General of the Department, before the Public Accounts Committee in March 2013: "Overpayments in their totality, which amounted to €92m, equated to 0.44pc of expenditure. The fraudulent element of that was 0.2pc of expenditure."

Any financial entity dealing in tens of billions will leak some money.

About €50m is a small fraction nicked, but it's real money - maybe €50m or thereabouts some years. Some taken by professional thieves, mostly in small amounts by people living hand to mouth.

Compare this with large multiples of that amount stolen in tax frauds by well-off, greedy people.

Far from being a problem, the welfare system is a solution. Without it, for instance, the labour market, with all its necessary job transitions and retirement periods, could not function.

Most benefits go to the old and the very young. Again, without such a system society could not function.

The State is right to take measures to protect public money. What it's not entitled to do is stage an hysterical war against a non-existent eruption of fraud, as though it's a major problem for the public finances.

The major problem is the tax dodging.

It would not be legitimate to mount a campaign demonising business people as crooks and liars, just because some business people dodge tax.

It is not legitimate to mount a campaign demonising those receiving welfare payments - which, in the course of a life includes most of us.

It's morally wrong and it's socially damaging.

For a start, it increases welfare fraud. When chancers like Leo create a belief that "everyone is at it", it increases the number of people who believe that fraud must be easy, so they try it on.

Others feel like they're among a dwindling number of honest eejits, and they too are tempted to have a go.

Smearing a lot of people, in order to demonstrate Varadkar's leadership credentials is a waste of public money when fraud is at a low level and is not a threat to financial stability.

I've had my fun on Leo's Fraud Page. I'm not recommending that others do likewise. But if you do check it out you might note there's a malfunction in the extremely expensive exercise.

You must say whether you made a previous report on the alleged culprit - and if so on what date. If you haven't made a previous report, the site won't accept your tip-off unless you insert a random date on which you didn't previously make a report.

Not very competent, Mr Varadkar.

Sunday Independent

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