Ferries and flights could be monitored in effort to combat social welfare fraud

Mon, Nov 21, 2011, 00:00

SOCIAL WELFARE officials are exploring ways of obtaining the names of passengers on flights and ferries arriving into Ireland as part of a bid to combat welfare fraud by non-residents.

The move is likely to cause controversy among civil liberties campaigners, who fear it is an invasion of passengers’ privacy.

Anti-fraud initiatives by the Department of Social Protection indicate there is a problem with some non-residents flying into Ireland to cash welfare benefits such as the jobseeker’s allowance.

However departmental inspectors do not have any specific powers in the context of ports and airports and it would require legislation for them to have such powers.

As a result, officials are examining the possibility of obtaining passenger information and matching this with the details of welfare beneficiaries.

In an internal briefing note, the department says such a move would require significant legislative changes and data protection implications would also need to be considered.

“The department will work closely with the Department of Justice and other agencies in the context of any revised legislative proposals and to ensure that appropriate and proportionate measures to combat incidences of non-residency through data sharing are realised,” the briefing note states.

“Consideration will also be given to examining the feasibility of extending inspectors’ powers to airports and ports.”

In the meantime, officials say there is frequent and ongoing intelligence-sharing with the Revenue Commissioners and Customs officials.

Officials at the Department of Social Protection state that “operational experience and ongoing initiatives” indicate the risk of fraud involving non-residents is highest on the jobseeker’s schemes.

In a specific project undertaken by the department’s special investigation unit into these high-risk cases during 2010, 4,941 cases were reviewed. This resulted in 827 cases (or about 17 per cent of those targeted) being terminated. These targeted reviews resulted in savings totalling €6,755,690.

In a similar investigation this year, latest figures show that just over 3,700 cases have been reviewed so far, which resulted in about 420 cases (or approximately 11 per cent of those targeted) being terminated.

These targeted reviews have resulted in savings totalling €4.5 million.

In order to cut down on fraud, the department does not transfer welfare benefits to claimants’ bank accounts any more. Instead, claimants are required to attend the post office on a weekly basis to collect their payment.

In 2007, welfare officials first became aware that some benefits – such as the single parent’s allowance – were being electronically transferred to foreign bank accounts or were being accessed electronically from outside Ireland by clients who were no longer resident here.

Meanwhile, new figures show that 200 people have had their benefits cut because of their refusal to take part in job or training initiatives.

The Social Welfare Act 2010 provided for a reduction in jobseeker’s benefit, jobseeker’s allowance and supplementary welfare allowance where a person refuses to take part in training without good cause.

Since the summer, welfare authorities were given the power to dock welfare benefits for these claimants by up to €44 a week. The standard dole payment is about €188 a week.