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Fraud probe as convicts collect dole from prison

PRISONERS have been able to claim welfare benefits from behind bars -- but the Government can't currently pinpoint the extent of fraud.

Lists from the Irish Prison Service (IPS) are cross-checked with the Department of Social Protection's 'live' welfare lists.

However, this double check was just initiated in 2007 and the lists are only reviewed every four months. This means that convicts can fraudulently claim their payments while in prison, on temporary release or on full release when they may have accumulated payments.

The Department has outlined that €305,000 of taxpayers' money has been saved by cancelling the supplementary welfare allowance to prisoners last year.

There is no available breakdown of the figures from the Department.

There are currently around 4,200 prisoners in custody while 859 prisoners are on temporary release.

Only new jobseekers have to present to their local post office every week to confirm their residency in the country and availability to work.

Under the welfare system, a claimant is obliged to inform the authorities when their circumstances change, such as getting a job or going to prison.

But in some cases, prisoners failed to inform the authorities of their detention and had family members collect payments on their behalf.

It is understood that the moratorium on public-sector hiring meant reports could take longer to compile and the prisoner list might not be as readily available.

When the investigation was first launched by the then Department of Social Welfare, it was found that offspring, partners and parents of some prisoners were falsely claiming benefits and transferring the monies as cash payments during visits which are then used to purchase illicit drugs.

The loophole was identified when it was revealed that claimants with a disability could authorise an agent to collect their allowances on their behalf.

The Comptroller and Auditor General recently devoted four chapters of his annual report to overpayments in social welfare and advised the department to undertake more surveys of payments. It was established that the total amount of overpayments amounted to an equivalent of 0.32pc of the total social welfare expenditure.

According to the Department, the number of anonymous reports from members of the public has increased dramatically in the past year, with more than 4,600 reports made at the end of September 2009 compared to approximately 1,000 in 2008.

A number of welfare inspectors are currently working with the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Garda National Immigration Bureau.