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Gardaí are being used to interview social welfare claimants

The move has been described as an “absolute disgrace” by one politician.

Image: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

GARDAÍ ARE SITTING in on some interviews with people claiming social welfare as part of efforts to root out potential overpayments or fraud.

The Department of Social Protection has confirmed that some of the 20 garda officers seconded to its special investigations unit (SIU) are participating in reviews to assess claimants’ eligibility for welfare payments.

Anti-Austerity Alliance councillor Cian Prendiville described the move as an “absolute disgrace” which amounts to “interrogation and “intimidation” of unemployed people.

The Limerick-based councillor was responding to a story in the Limerick Post which details the case of a woman in receipt of the deserted wives allowance for nearly two decades.

Employment rights officer Frank McDonald told the paper that the woman said “she felt like a criminal” after being called for a review where the plain clothes guard present warned her she could be prosecuted for failing to disclose any relevant information.

Prendiville said: “It seems the Gardai are now expected to spend their time harassing the unemployed and peaceful protesters in order to keep Joan Burton happy.”

The Department confirmed to TheJournal.ie that gardaí are in some cases sitting in on interviews and said their involvement is usually based on the nature of the investigation or enquiries being undertaken.

The work of all Social Welfare Inspectors including the seconded Gardaí involves the interview of customers – this is related to the nature of the case enquiries and the investigations being made.

While it is not department policy that a guard should be present at every interview, the department said it depends on the nature and circumstances of the case.

“In any interview situation a Garda/Social Welfare Inspector will introduce themselves as a member of the Gardaí seconded to the Department of Social Protection and duly appointed as a Social Welfare Inspector,” the department said.

Their role as a social welfare inspector for the purposes of reviewing entitlement to a social protection payment will be fully explained to the person concerned as will the purpose of the interview. Such interviews are voluntary and the customer concerned is clearly advised of this.

The secondment of 20 gardaí to the department’s SIU is a one-year pilot programme that began last December and is due to be reviewed shortly to determine whether it will be extended.

The gardaí are based in social welfare offices in Dublin, Galway, Navan, Sligo, Limerick, Cork, Dundalk, Longford, Monaghan, Letterkenny.

The department said it did not accept the charge that garda involvement in some social welfare reviews amounted to unfair intimidation of the unemployed and legitimate welfare claimants. A spokesperson said:

In any interview situation great care is taken by all Departmental officers including the gardaí seconded to the Department that the nature and purpose of the interview is explained. All officers identify themselves and explain their role.

They added that where a person believes they have not been treated fairly there are formal systems to manage and deal with complaints.

The department also insisted that the “vast majority of people” in receipt of welfare support are exercising their legitimate rights and receiving the appropriate payments.

Read: Overpaid in social welfare payments? The government will seek you out

Read: Gardaí to work as social welfare inspectors

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Hugh O'Connell

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