Varadkar’s nasty & divisive dole cheat campaign is a fraud

Posted: April 24, 2017 in Leo Varadkar, Social Welfare, Uncategorized

Leo Varadkar is getting tough on dole spongers. Last Wednesday he launched a high profile and hard hitting campaign to root our social welfare fraud.

He claimed that ‘anti-fraud and control measures’ saved the taxpayer over €500m in 2016. No detail explaining or justifying this figure was provided. Requests to the Department of Social Protection for additional information didn’t help much.

But something just doesn’t add up.

In the absence of any clarity from the Minister one has to trawl through the Department of Social Protections Fraud and Error Surveys, the annual Controller and Auditor General reports and Parliamentary Questions to get some answers.

Under their Compliance and Anti Fraud Strategy the Department of Social Protection conducts two surveys of specific social welfare payments every year. The select a random sample, review the claims and identify possible fraud, error or change of circumstance.

The 2014 report into Job Seekers Allowance revealed that 2% of claims representing 1.4% of expenditure were fraudulent. The report also found that 11% of claims were receiving an overpayment due to client or Department error amounting to 1.7% of expenditure.

The 2012 Controller and Auditor General Report surveyed irregularities in social welfare payments over a number of years and found similarly low levels of fraud.

The report concluded that fraud in Jobseekers Benefit amounted to 0.1%, Child Benefit to 0.5%, Disability Allowance to 2.1% and One Parent Family Payment to 6.7%.

In 2013 the Controller and Auditor General annual report included a section on Welfare Overpayment Debt. The report concluded that from 2007 to 2011 50% of all overpayments were due to error (44% from the client and 6% from the Department) while 38% of overpayments was due to fraud.

This pattern was confirmed in a Parliamentary Question from Minister Varadkar on 31 May 2016 which stated that 21% of identified overpayments in 2015 were fraudulent, 30% in 2014 and 32% in 2013. In each of these three years the total number of overpaid claims was between 80,000 and 90,000 with fraudulent claims falling from 27,000 in 2013 to 21,000 in 2015.

The conclusion to be drawn from figures is that the number of fraudulent claims is small and that overpayments due to errors by claimants or Department staff are are more significant.

The big question of course is how much does this cost the taxpayer. Thankfully Minister Varadkar’s Parliamentary Question replies are a lot clearer than his press releases.

The same PQ from May 2016 states that the cost of all overpayments in 2015 was €115 million of which €48 million was due to fraud. The figures for 2014 were €124 million and €52 million and for 2013 were €127 million and €61 million.

So not only are errors more frequent than fraud in our social welfare system, they are also costing the taxpayer more.

While a significant sum of money is recouped each year (€82m in 2016, €80m in 2015, €82m in 2014) it is significantly less than the overpayments discovered each year. So the total mount of overpayment debt owed to the state continues to rise – at €437 million in 2015.

What is not clear from any of the above data is where Minister Varadkar is getting his claim that €500 million was saved from anti fraud and other control measures in 2016.

This figure is clearly not the actual amount of money saved from identifying overpayments. Nor does it bear any relation to actual incidents of fraud in 2016.

But who cares? It makes for a good headline when launching a campaign to tackle one of societies big problems. Except that on the basis of the Departments own figures social welfare fraud isn’t such a big problem and certainly not bigger than the issue of overpayment due to errors. Indeed the level of detection and recovery by the Department is pretty impressive.

Unfortunately launching a campaign to root our errors rather than fraudsters just doesn’t grab as many headlines. Likewise announcing extra staff to identify and recover overpayments of whatever source is not a big news story.

If Minister Varadkar was serious about tackling overpayments -and he should be- he would focus on errors as much as fraud and invest resources in the staff to deal with this.

But Leo’s focus is not social welfare overpayments. His eye is firmly fixed on the leadership of Fine Gael and the office of Taoiseach. To get what he wants he desperately needs headlines.

So he has launched a nasty and divisive campaign based on cooked up figures and wilful misdirection.

He is positioning himself as the champion of the hard pressed working family. He wants to give the impression that he is taking a stand against welfare scrounges who pay for nothing and expect everything for free.

What he is really doing is wasting tax payers money to stoke up prejudice and ignorance rather than investing that money in tackling the real problem.

This is right wing Thatcherism at its very worst. It is a mean spirited approach which seeks to pit communities and individuals against each other for narrow personal political gain. If this is the height of Leo Varadkar’s vision for the country then maybe Enda Kenny should hang around a little longer.

 

This article was originally published in the Sunday Business Post 23.4.17

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