SOCIAL PROTECTION MINISTER Joan Burton has ruled out the possibility of the government introducing a social welfare amnesty for fraud and overpayments.
She was responding to the introduction of the Social Welfare Amnesty Bill in the Dáil by Sinn Féin yesterday with the opposition party TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh saying that an amnesty would allow people to come forward without fear of penalties and prosecutions.
He told the Dáil yesterday: “There is no denying that there are a number of people receiving more than they are entitled to, but they are afraid to put up their hands and alert the Department because they simply cannot afford to pay it back.
“They are caught in a bind because if they come forward, they will end up with less money weekly and their children will suffer.”
He also said that there was one “yardstick for the poor and another for the rich” when it came to dealing with recouping taxpayers’ money, citing an example of a pensioner or a single mother being overpaid €10 per week and the State attempting to recoup this.
By contrast, Ó Snodaigh said that no attempt had been made to recover the €160,000 that was overpaid in error to the director designate of the HSE, Tony O’Brien.
Ó Snodaigh said: “There is no slight on him. It was a clerical error but no attempt will be made to recover that money. There is one rule for one group and another for the others. This has happened even though the Department of Health asked the HSE to take corrective steps.”
He also pointed out that the level of fraud in the social welfare system was about one per cent of overall payments but Burton later argued that this one per cent accounted for around €200 million.
Burton said that the proposed legislation had “serious flaws” and the bill contained a provision which would “essentially allow those who defraud the State to escape scot-free”.
“Supporting the Bill essentially would give a charter to raid that budget at the expense of those who really need it. If Sinn Féin believes that is a sensible way forward, so be it, ” Burton said.
The Minister added that the programme for government had committed to a “zero tolerance approach towards social welfare fraud”.