Garda checkpoints to be used to find welfare cheats

Burton says gardaí drafted in to mount checks at airports and estates

Garda checkpoints are to be set up in airports and industrial estates to counter welfare fraud according to the Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton.

A pilot scheme will see 20 Garda members seconded into the department’s special investigations unit for a 12-month period, where they will assist in fraud investigation activities.

Gardaí will be deployed in airports alongside social welfare officers to counter welfare tourism by people living abroad but claiming benefits in Ireland.

Similar measures will be put in place in industrial estates to detect people who were claiming welfare despite having regular work.

Gardaí will have powers of arrest where offences have been committed under criminal justice legislation, such as identity fraud. Arrests would not arise for breaches of social welfare legislation.

"We will be taking a number of gardaí directly into the Department of Social Protection for a period of time to concentrate on areas like airports," Ms Burton told The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk yesterday. She said those being targeted would be evenly split between "Irish people and people who came from abroad".

“We will also be looking at areas like checkpoints in estates and on roads early in the morning as people, who otherwise are claiming benefits, are actually in fact going off to work either self employed or working and not declaring it,” she said.

A spokesman later clarified that Ms Burton had been referring to industrial estates, rather than housing estates .

As regards welfare tourism, a departmental spokeswoman said last night 101 cases of social welfare fraud had been detected since 2012 as a result of direct activity in airports. Investigations are ongoing in a further 43 cases.

However, the Immigrant Council of Ireland said yesterday Ms Burton needed to give assurances that racial profiling would not be a feature of the planned checkpoints.

The council said safeguards must be put in place to ensure the checks are implemented fairly and do not single out any particular group of people or communities and called for the minister to outline what protections will be put in place to prevent this.

"There is no evidence of social welfare fraud being more prevalent amongst migrant communities and there is no reason why they should be singled out for special treatment as part of the new crackdown," Denise Charlton, chief executive of the Immigrant Council of Ireland said. "Fraud is indefensible and must not be tolerated. However any measures to reduce it must be implemented across all communities."

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection said “the incidence of non-residency or welfare tourism is not confined to any specific nationality nor should it be portrayed as so”.

The department has engaged in a ramping up of anti-fraud measures in recent years, encouraging the reporting of welfare fraud and publicising its successes in this regard.

In 2012 the department estimated it achieved €669 million in savings through anti-fraud measures arising, a figure which includes estimates of how much savings such false claims would incur into the future.

The Social Welfare & Pension Act 2012 included specific provisions to enhance and support fraud and control measures including allowing social welfare inspectors to exercise certain functions at ports and airports to identify individuals suspected of welfare tourism.

Speaking in the Dáil tonight, Ms Burton said she had “greater ambition for people unfortunate enough to be unemployed”.

“I view each and every individual on the Live Register as an untapped resource and a future employee who will participate in the rebuilding of this country and its economic recovery. That ambition is why we are moving from a passive to an active welfare system.

“That is why I have focused on transforming the Department from the passive benefits provider of old to an active, engaged and focused organisation that provides employment services for jobseekers and also, importantly, for employers.”