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Dept had concerns over calling people 'cheats' in controversial welfare ad campaign

Newly-released FOI documents show that the Department had considered changing the title to something less forceful.

wellfare fraud Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

CONCERNS WERE RAISED in the Department of Social Protection over calling people “cheats” as part of the controversial advertising campaign on social welfare launched by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar while he was Minister for Social Protection.

The ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ campaign was launched in April and caused considerable debate over highlighting welfare fraud so prominently and for asking people to anonymously report their neighbours.

Internal departmental emails obtained by TheJournal.ie reveal that with just weeks to go, the department considered changing the campaign title to something a little less forceful.

An email explained: “I know there was concern re: the use of the word ‘cheats’ in our advertising campaign strapline. I want to ensure we are comfortable progressing.

“We did ask the creative team to consider an alternative and they could work with ‘Welfare Fraud Costs Us All’ as opposed to our current line ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’.”

No 1 FOI Source: Ken Foxe - FOI

Concerns were also flagged about using words like “fraud” and “crime” as part of the campaign.

One email shows that the Department was worried that these words would get linked back to the “current Garda scandals” involving Templemore training college and other controversies.

FOI 2 image Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

Another internal email suggested the campaign was likely to go down well with members of the public.

It said: “Given the size of the Department, and the control savings we can, and do achieve, and the appetite of the public to know that we guard their money very carefully, this campaign should be well received overall.”

FOI 3 image Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

To help achieve that, the email said they needed to have spokespeople available for national and regional radio to talk about “detecting and reducing fraud”.

The message also said the aim of the project was to change “culture and attitude”.

It said the campaign had three overall objectives, the first of which was to encourage people to report people they suspected of cheating dole payments. The email said they wanted to make “it easy for them to report anonymously” their suspicions.

The second objective was to change perceptions that welfare fraud was a “victimless crime” and lastly that the department took the problem seriously and would “investigate and prosecute”.

Right to Know

wellfare fraud Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The records are part of more than 400 pages of documents on the advertising campaign released under FOI to Right to Know, an organisation which campaigns for transparency in Ireland.

They show the department was also aware that there would be extensive querying of just how prevalent social welfare fraud was.

One internal email said: “The ad campaign will doubtless bring a focus on the levels of fraud and our track record in fraud detection so any useful lines for media ‘tough questions’ would be great.”

foi 4 image Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

Among the “tough questions” they prepared to answer were whether anonymous reporting of welfare fraud actually yielded results.

An internal FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] posed the question: “How will we judge the success of the current campaign vis-à-vis the €172k we’re spending on it?”

Other questions raised included one asking: “Do we honestly believe the majority of people getting social welfare payments are honest? How do we know/basis for saying that?”

Another asked whether some areas in the country were worse than others for fraud.
The email also said: “What do we say to those who think we’re ‘soft’ on fraud and there is no deterrent really – cheap loans for people with little prospect that they’ll be prosecuted.”

The correspondence also talked about the importance of developing “branding” around the welfare fraud campaign.

“We are also looking at developing some brand elements for the welfare.ie website,” one email said, “so if people come to report a fraud there, there is ‘brand recognition’ from the campaign.”

FOi 5 image Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

Work on the campaign was already underway last October, according to the records, and Minister Leo Varadkar was closely involved in its development.

One message explained how Varadkar would be attending a meeting to discuss “communications strategy and campaigns” on 1 December last year.

FOI 6 Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

An email sent later by his press adviser Nick Miller said:

Leo’s thoughts on this are that he likes the [redacted] one. However, he feels we need to emphasise more that this is not just money from your pocket; that someone else will lose out directly. We want to reduce fraud so we can preserve resources for those who need them most. Could that be worked in somehow?

FOI 7 Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

The involvement of Varadkar – who was then minister at the department – during the launch was also considered key.

One email said: “My own view is that we get the minister on the case and perhaps do a main chat show.”

The documents also show that part of the intention of the campaign appears to create a talking point for the public.

“It is a multimedia campaign that will deliver high awareness and get people talking about the campaign,” said one email from the Department’s media buyer.

FOI 8 Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

Minutes of a meeting also described how discussions took place over “how loud the message should shout, in order to get maximum impact”.

FOI 9 Source: FOI - Ken Foxe

(To see in finer detail, click here)

In a lengthy statement, the Department of Social Protection said the campaign was intended to make the point that all of society was impacted by welfare fraud, and that “no level of welfare fraud is acceptable”.

It said: “Crimes involving the loss of public revenue are sometimes portrayed as victimless crimes. This campaign challenges the perceptions of people who perceive welfare fraud as a lesser or socially acceptable fraud.

“Our strong campaign message ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ and supporting radio and print ads were considered by the Department at length and considered to be the most appropriate.

We also considered a campaign ‘Welfare Fraud Costs US All’. However, on balance, it was felt that this was a less emotive and less immediate statement and did not carry the impact of the chosen campaign.

It said the campaign had been successful in bringing welfare fraud “to the fore”.

The statement said: “The campaign has also led to a considerable increase in the level of suspected fraud reporting (a 66% increase in overall reporting during the initial campaign period) and since the campaign launch the Department’s fraud reporting numbers are 46% higher than the same period in 2016.”

Read: FactCheck: Did the government really save €500 million due to reported welfare fraud last year?>

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Ken Foxe

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