Burton says social welfare amnesty for fraud and overpayments not an option
Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton has ruled out a social welfare amnesty for fraud and overpayments. She said overpayments for 2012 were likely to be about €92.4 million and two previous amnesties in the 1990s had been “hopeless”. It would be “financially misguided” to introduce another, she told the Dáil.
But Sinn Féin social protection spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh said the amnesties in 1991 and 1993 were “unmitigated failures” because there was no incentive other than a promise not to impose penalties. “People had to pay the full amount back with interest,” he said. “Earlier amnesties were an afterthought designed more to take pressure off a government offering a tax amnesty to the rich.”
He was introducing his Social Welfare (Amnesty) Bill in the Dáil, which allows social welfare recipients who received overpayments “often through no fault of their own, to come forward without fear of penalties, prosecution or demands for repayment, regularise their payments and have a line drawn in the sand under past irregularities”.
In 1991 only 17 people applied for amnesty, even though there were 500 inquiries. In 1993, more than €1.25 million was recouped with 600 applicants dealt with, many of whom had not been forthcoming. This amnesty was “substantially different”, he said.
He said there was “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”.
He highlighted the contrast between the State’s attempt to recoup every last cent from a pensioner or single mother who made an error and received an extra €10 a week but “no attempt will be made to recover the €160,000 that was overpaid in error to the HSE director designate, Tony O’Brien, since 2006 through no fault of his own. There is no slight on him. It was a clerical error but no attempt will be made to recover that money.”
The Dublin South Central TD said there were often media headlines “screaming about dole fraud and cheats” with “hugely inflated” amounts of up to €600 million being bandied about as money recovered. But in reality it was a “control saving, an estimate of what the department would have spent over time if the overpayment had not been identified and corrected”.
Mr Ó Snodaigh said the amount recovered last year would be about €30 million. “The level of fraud and error in the social welfare system was 3.4 per cent and fraud alone was about 1 per cent.”
But Ms Burton said 1 per cent was €200 million. “At budget time I spend months on figures that tot up to €200 million.” She stressed “the programme for government commits to a zero-tolerance approach towards social welfare fraud”.