Miriam Lord: Dáil fraud squad leave Leo unfazed
Taoiseach again parries Opposition questions about cost of National Development Plan ads
Leo Varadkar got a bit of a kicking when he launched his campaign against welfare fraud in the run-up to the 2016 General Election.
The publicity photograph of him holding a big red poster with the message “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All” didn’t go down well with everyone.
The then Minister for Social Protection caused a storm of controversy when he claimed that €500 million had been saved as a result of people reporting suspected cases of welfare fraud to the authorities.
It was a sweeping statement which didn’t stand up to scrutiny and the campaign fizzled out.
But no matter. Leo’s hardline stance did him no harm at all with the “squeezed middle” and “the people who get up early in the morning” - the constituency he is, and has been, assiduously courting in his rapid rise to the top.
So on Wednesday, when Solidarity TD Paul Murphy recalled that campaign as proof of the government’s “ideological assault on Social Welfare”, the Taoiseach was more than happy to talk about fraud again. There is no place for it in Fine Gael’s Republic of Opportunity.
Murphy, on the other hand, didn’t actually want to talk about welfare cheats. He wanted to talk about something he calls “The Republic of Precarity”.
According to him, the Government, under the guise of pushing “labour activation measures”, has encouraged a situation where “unemployed people have been demonised, victimised and had their social welfare cut” as part of a policy pushing low-paid precarious work on jobseekers.
He was referring to the JobPath scheme, which he maintains hasn’t been successful in getting people into full-time employment but has contributed handsomely to the profits of two private companies contracted by the State to operate it. The Dublin South West TD wants it axed, pointing to a fraud allegation against one of the companies, Seetec, which was raised in the Dáil last year by Catherine Murphy.
But never mind that.
Did somebody mention welfare fraud?
Taoiseach Varadkar swooped.
Social Welfare fraud is very real and a very real problem, he told Murphy. Furthermore, the very lowest estimate of its scale is around €40 million a year. That’s a lot of money in his view.
“Let us not forget that people who engage in welfare fraud aren’t the poor and vulnerable. They are people who are pretending to be poor and vulnerable.”
There are people who are working and claiming, people pretending to have a disability, people pretending to care for someone they aren’t caring for and people pretending to be somebody else or claiming a pension in the name of a person who is long dead, he said.
“And it really disappoints me to hear left-wing politicians in this country constantly defending fraudsters as though they are entitled to the benefits that they are stealing.”
On the other hand, the Taoiseach is determined to crackdown on this fraud - not for ideological reasons but because “it is wrong.” He added that the money saved goes towards increased payments to genuine recipients.
Leo was so disappointed he just had to say it again.
“I’m very disappointed to hear politicians on the Left continuously equivocating on this issue and not condemning welfare fraud and I note that the deputy did not do so on this occasion,” he repeated, adding that unemployment figures are now down to 6pc.
But then, if his Government implemented the sort of policies advocated by Paul Murphy and his Socialist chums, we would have mass unemployment and a mass exodus of refugees from the country “as we have at the moment from Venezuela to Columbia.”
Murphy was impressed.
“It’s like Enda Kenny is back, isn’t it! You managed not to answer the question at all.”
But wait a minute. Paul could smell a rat.
“You said €40 million two minutes ago, but your advertising campaign said €500 million. Which is it? Who’s engaged in fraud here?”
Leo was unfazed. He had been talking about “the lowest” estimate. The higher figure was to do with “fraud and control. They are two different things.”
Sinn Féin’s Eoin O’Broin wasn’t convinced.
“It was on the department’s Brexit bus,” he quipped.
That welfare cheats campaign back in 2016 cost €166,000.
There’s another big advertising campaign underway at the moment, devised by Leo’s Strategic Communications Unit to publicise the Government’s new National Development Plan. The Opposition is obsessed by it.
It was under scrutiny for the second day in a row.
TDs want to know how much all this nice publicity is costing - the cinema ads, the newspaper ads and the glowing two-page advertorials which don’t come cheap.
The Taoiseach couldn’t say. That figure won’t be known until the campaign is over.
“Ah, stop. That’s outrageous!” gasped Micheál Martin. “You have all the costs because they are done. You wouldn’t get into the cinema without paying the money upfront.”
Joan Burton is deeply suspicious about the work of the communications unit (which Micheál has now taken to calling the Marketing Unit). Leo insists it has no connection with his party whatsoever but is solely focused on promoting the work of the government. That’s why all their videos and adverts are from “The Government of Ireland.”
But Joan is worried that when people see these glossy ads for the Development Plan they will make no distinction between the Government as the State and Fine Gael as the governing party.
It’ll be a case of Leo: L’état, c’est moi.
“You seem actually hellbent on blurring the distinction between the two,” said Joan.
Micheál Martin thinks there is something “ethically dubious” about the way the plan is being promoted.
“The blurring of the lines, I think, is very, very worrying indeed, genuinely, from a parliamentary democracy point of view. You will say you’re promoting the Government, but the dogs in the street know that you’re using taxpayers’ money to promote Fine Gael politically.”
He referred to major two-page write-ups in The Irish Times and The Irish Independent produced in partnership with the government.
“It is presented as an article. Are we to take it that it is actually an adver-tiz-ment?”
Pearse Doherty wondered if the ads are a public information exercise or if they are designed to make Fine Gael look good - which is what he believes.
But the Taoiseach couldn’t give them any information about the campaign. No hand, act or part in it. And anyway, there is no mention of any political parties in those ads.
And it’s not his fault if it’s all good news.
And it’s just keeping people informed.
But if anybody wants to find out more about the nice things in his plan, people can go onto the Fine Gael website and “scroll down and pick their county and it will give them a full breakdown of how the plan will affect their county and I encourage people to look at it.”
In a totes non-political way, obviously.