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Major crackdown on benefit cheats, but no boost in prosecutions

The number of reviews being carried out has more than trebled in the past 10 years.

Image: Shutterstock/Photographee.eu

IF YOU’RE LIVING on benefits, an unexpected knock on the door can be a harrowing thing.

The government can, and do, scrutinise anyone they think might be gaming the system.

And with more than a million control reviews carried out in 2015 – a number increasing year-on-year – the net is cast wide on who is investigated.

But in this time, has the system gotten any better at catching cheats?

The jury’s out.

In figures provided to TheJournal.ie by the Department of Social Protectionwe can see that while the number of reviews has trebled in the 10 years since 2005, the number of prosecutions has stayed almost exactly the same.

This is what has been happening.

What is a control review? 

Control reviews are investigations into individual benefits that a person receives. A big part of their purpose is weeding out dodgy claims.

Commenting in 2014, Minister for Social Protection and Tánaiste Joan Burton said that while she is “acutely conscious” that the majority of people receiving benefits are entitled to them, it was also the case that…

…fraud and abuse of the welfare system is an ongoing reality which needs to be tackled across a number of fronts. 

joan burton Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Reviews work by a person’s circumstances being measured up against what they are claiming; once this process is complete, a number of outcomes are possible – not all of them are bad.

A person might have their their claim confirmed by the Department, or even have their payments increased if they’ve forgotten to declare a preferential change in their circumstances.

For those over-claiming the news isn’t so good.

The Department will pursue repayments, and in some more serious cases, go after suspected cheats through the court system.

So there are a lot more of these reviews now?

There is.

More than 1 million reviews have been carried out each year since 2012.

A pretty big figures when you consider that the total number of people in receipt of welfare payments is just 1.4 million.

Back in 2005, the number of reviews was only 329,328. Last year it hit a 10-year high of 1,105,314.

This big increase isn’t an accident.

The Department told TheJournal.ie that it was down to more people applying for income supports, more staffing, advance technology and “increased vigilance by members of the public”.

Various initiatives aimed at driving down the amount paid as a result of fraud have also been run.

welfare reviews - final - 1 Source: Dept. of Social Protection

Click here to view a larger image. 

Between 2011 and 2013 it carried out its Fraud Initiative, a programme that had an increase in reviews as one of its key aims.

Its current programme – the Compliance and Anti-Fraud Strategy 2014-2018 - aims at hitting benefit scammers with tougher sanctions and preventing fraud from entering the system.

So the country is prosecuting more fraudsters?

Not really.

Despite the big upswing in the reviews, successful prosecution as an outcome hasn’t spiked.

The number of prosecutions has stayed pretty stable over the past 10 years. Back in 2005 the number of people facing charges of benefit fraud was 271, and while it climbed to 356 in 2009, it was back down by 231 last year.

welfare reviews - final - 2 Source: Dept of Social Protection

Click here to view a larger image. 

Figures for investigations into serious fraud, something carried out by gardaí, are only available since 2012.

The annual figures for these are broken down as:

  • 2012, 84
  • 2013, 68
  • 2014, 115
  • 2015, 151

While the number of investigations in 2015 was almost double what it was in 2012, there was a dip in 2013, so it is hard to say for sure if any trends have emerged.

So what’s the point in all of these reviews then?

While the number of benefit scammers being charged might be pretty steady, that doesn’t mean that the increase in the number of reviews has been a waste of taxpayers money.

Rather, greater scrutiny has led to a tightening up of the system, and big savings of taxpayer money.

This is measured by looking at what are called ‘control savings’, which is a figure put on the prevented expenditure over a future period had claims not been investigated.

Between 2011 and 2013 more than €600 million was saved annually by the Department.

In its most recent report, these control measures had brought about €505 million worth of savings.

Read: Gardaí accuse senior management of bullying members

Also: Department insists no issue with Joan Burton’s ‘unusual and concerning’ letter to constituents

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