Can welfare hassle me to sign bank disclosure forms?

Q&A: Dominic Coyle

Social welfare inspectors can force the banks to hand over the financial information even without your filling out a bank disclosure form

Social welfare inspectors can force the banks to hand over the financial information even without your filling out a bank disclosure form

 

I’m writing to you regarding my torment with the Social Welfare. My father passed away recently and they have been hassling me ever since. They asked me to sign bank disclosure forms which made me feel like a criminal.

If I sign the forms, can they find out if I have any prize bonds or solidarity bonds?

I can’t sleep at night and suffer from anxiety attacks in fear of losing my home.

Ms R.S., email

I have to admit, first off, that this is unfamiliar ground. Until your query, I had never come across the concept of bank disclosure forms and cursory investigation online provided precisely zero relevant information.

Unsurprisingly then, they could prove very confusing for someone suddenly finding themselves subject of one. Further enquiries have done nothing to make me any less concerned about these forms. I can assure you that you do need to consider your position extremely carefully. Personally, I would strongly advise that you secure appropriate legal advice.

Taking a step back then, what is a bank disclosure form and why are they used at all?

A bank disclosure form is more formally known as Form IN 121. It is a procedure open to the inspectorate of the Department of Social Protection when it suspects fraud or other abuse of welfare payments, so it is certainly a serious matter in itself.

The form essentially authorises the inspector to obtain information directly from financial institutions about your finances.

But it’s not a power that the law allows to be bandied around willy-nilly by the welfare inspectors. According to an informative Department of Social Protection document “Guidelines for Social Welfare Inspectors When Requesting Information to be Furnished by Financial Institutions”, when an inspector considers it necessary to ask you to provide financial statements, it is “normal practice” that you are first given the opportunity to obtain the requested information yourself and hand it over.

Only if you are unable or unwilling to do so will he or she ask you to give them permission (via Form IN 121) to get the information directly from the financial institution themselves.

The same guidelines stress that such action can be taken ONLY [my emphasis] when there are reasonable grounds for the Department to believe that you have abused the welfare process. As they state: “In the main, this will be in circumstances where there is a well-founded belief that a significant overpayment has occurred and that disclosure of such information [from the financial institution] would provide evidence in that regard.”

Essentially, the guidelines make clear that this power can be used only when the welfare inspectorate has serious grounds for believing that you have inappropriately claimed welfare payments – or that your father did before his death and that you have benefitted by way of inheriting from him.

Talking to you after your original mail, you said welfare had never explained what they wanted, or why.

If the inspectorate do go to Form IN 121, presumably because you refused to hand over what they wanted in the first place, they are obliged to give you a list of what information they require – such as, say, all bank statements for one or more named accounts for the past 12 months.

Alternatively they can fill out a separate form – IN96(FI)– which seeks information on bank account balances in each account in a bank or other financial institution. If you have accounts in more than one bank, they will contact each institution.

They do also have to tell you why the information is being sought. So they are obliged to provide some information and you should insist on it. If you get nowhere, make your request for that information in writing (and keep a copy of the letter yourself – photocopying it if it is written, or keeping a copy of any emails).

You need to know that if you simply stonewall the inspector, they can recommend the suspension of payments or blocking of new claims – as they should have told you.

In extremis, they can actually force the banks to hand over the information even without your filling out a bank disclosure form, using what is called a section 250A notice. Failure to comply with such a notice could see you facing prosecution, a fine and even prison.

Getting back to your original question, can they discover if you hold prize bonds or National Solidarity Bonds? Absolutely. Essentially, as I understand it, if they really believe you, or your father, have gamed the system to the extent that they wheel out the heavy guns, they will be able to get access to any financial information that helps them determine whether you are entitled to the payments, or benefits you have received.

If you really want to become a policy wonk in this area, you need to digest Section 250 of the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 and later amending provisions under section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions (no. 2) Act 2009. Given the seriousness of the situation, you would be better advised to get legal advice. If you cannot afford that, I suggest you contact Flac – the Free Legal Advice Centres. If you call 1890 350250 or 01 8745690, they will direct you to the centre nearest you.

I would very strongly urge you not to ignore either the welfare inspectors or the bank disclosure form.

Send your queries to Dominic Coyle, Q&A, The Irish Times, 24-28 Tara St, D2, or email dcoyle@irishtimes.com. This column is a reader service and is not intended to replace professional advice.

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