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'I won't be running a similar campaign' - Minister drops 'Welfare Cheats' approach, but says €500m fraud figure 'absolutely accurate'

“It’s difficult to say in hindsight whether I would have run such a campaign or not,” says Minister Regina Doherty.

Screenshot 2017-12-20 at 13.23.41 Source: Rollingnews.ie

MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty says she won’t be running a ‘welfare cheats’ campaign in her new role, but nevertheless she insists that her department’s estimates regarding welfare fraud in Ireland are ‘absolutely accurate’.

The controversial welfare cheats campaign was run by Doherty’s predecessor in office, now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in his last significant move as Minister for Social Protection in April 2017.

From its inception, the campaign caused controversy with the department insisting that €500 million had been saved as a result of reported welfare fraud in the previous 12 months – a figure that was widely disputed as being inaccurate and not based in reality. Meanwhile, Ireland’s political opposition insisted that using the word ‘cheat’ in such an initiative served to demean some of the most vulnerable members of Irish society.

“We have a campaign every year,” Doherty told TheJournal.ie, when asked whether or not she would have sanctioned the campaign herself. “I suppose it’s difficult to look back in hindsight and say whether I would or I wouldn’t have done it.”

Screenshot 2017-12-20 at 13.24.33 Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty Source: Rollingnews.ie

I do know that I won’t be running a similar campaign next year.

“But that’s not to say I won’t be taking fraud as seriously as we’ve taken it this year, last year, or the year before,” she added.

Ill-advised

In recent weeks, the new Secretary General of the department John McKeon suggested that the phrase ‘welfare cheats’ was an ill-advised gambit in front of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee.

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

“Putting the word cheat beside the word welfare… I think we’ve learned from that. In retrospect I believe it was a mistake,” he said.

The €500 million figure itself proved to be especially contentious. Despite Doherty’s insistence that the figures are accurate, a TheJournal.ie FactCheck on the issue found that using an especially generous reading of the department’s own calculations would still only deliver an overall savings figure in the region of €82 million – with others estimating that the savings made were considerably lower than even that.

The €500 million number, meanwhile, remains prominently displayed on the department’s website.

“I’m absolutely sure (of the figures),” Doherty said. “The actual reality of savings in so far as money in the bank is concerned is an absolutely accurate figure,” she said, adding that “there are smarter people in our finance department that have come up with those numbers”.

Screenshot 2017-12-20 at 13.31.03 Source: Welfare.ie

“I’ll tell you what number’s important to me – it’s the actual number of millions that we saved last year by catching people, so it’s not about paying it forward for me, it’s about actually making sure that €41 million that we had that was caught last year will be in my coffers for next year to spend on something else.”

Earlier this month, a parliamentary question by Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins showed that the department had spent almost three times the amount of money (€163,923) on the Welfare Cheats campaign as it had on any other initiative in 2017, a fact termed ‘unbelievable’ by Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley.

“The purpose of the Department of Social Protection’s advertising, to my mind, is to inform people as to their entitlements not to project a tough man image for a would-be Taoiseach,” said Dooley.

It’s very disappointing that so much money was spent on Leo’s flagship Welfare Cheats campaign that was ultimately proven to have been a mistake.

A spokeswoman for Doherty has stated that, up until November 2017, 18,250 reports of alleged welfare fraud had been received by the department, an increase of 15% on the same period in 2016.

“Preliminary indications are that the value of claims stopped or reduced in value will produce control savings of €4.7 million,” she said (the department’s ‘control’ scheme for measuring fraud is one that uses a series of multipliers [estimates of how long a fraud would continue to be carried out before being brought to a halt in other words] in its calculations).

Public Services Card

For her part, Doherty insists that the controversial Public Services Card, which has been accused in some quarters of equating to a de facto national identity card, is “absolutely” helping to reduce instances of welfare fraud.

“It’s the most best practice piece of technology that we have to make sure that we root out fraud,” she said.

Screenshot 2017-12-20 at 13.25.10 Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley Source: Rollingnews.ie

There isn’t a week gone by without you reading in the newspaper of people who have been caught because they have been claiming under two different names with the same ID and biometric facial photograph, or they’ve given the same address with two different PPS numbers, and we’ll go and we’ll inspect them.

“That’s what it’s for. The only reason that it’s there is to make sure you are who you say you are, so that if you’re not we’ll catch you, and you’re not going to get money off the taxpayer that you don’t deserve or you’re not entitled to,” she added.

With reporting by Gordon Deegan

Read: Bill on the way to fix child maintenance anomaly and ensure parents pay up

Read: Taoiseach says ministers will be allowed ‘dissent’ on Eighth Amendment

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