‘Significant issues’ with social welfare fraud prevention

Four out of five files in some centres contained errors, Oireachtas committee told

Chairman of the PAC John McGuinness said it was extraordinary that families were being forced to sleep in hotels after leaving rental accommodation. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Chairman of the PAC John McGuinness said it was extraordinary that families were being forced to sleep in hotels after leaving rental accommodation. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General discovered “significant issues” with internal fraud measures in two social welfare offices in 2013, an Oireachtas committee has been told.

Séamus McCarthy said an audit conducted by his office found almost four out of five files at a centre in Clondalkin, Dublin, contained errors, while a similar inspection carried out in Letterkenny recorded an error rate of 72 per cent.

Most errors concerned incomplete applications, missing documentation or missing decision reports. In both cases, less than 10 per cent were identified as “payment errors”.

Speaking to the Public Accounts Committee, Mr McCarthy said the results of the surveys came about because of a significant backlog in the completion of management audits and a “failure to carry out routine reviews of payments”- measures which are deemed to be particularly important in detecting and preventing fraud.

“Our examination found that there were significant issues with the operation of key controls, and our findings were confirmed by internal inspections and audits undertaken by the Department of Social Protection’s own staff in other offices,” he said.

Such problems extended to offices which dealt with Farm Assist payments given to about 10,000 low-income farmers in 2013.

According to Mr McCarthy, five claimants on the scheme- which hands out an average weekly payment of just over €180- were overpaid with a cumulative sum of €600,000 over the course of that year.

A series of welfare office visits also revealed that two did not have mandatory annual declarations on file for a significant proportion of cases, and over a third of Farm Assist cases in all offices visited were not formally reviewed in the last three years.

There were heated exchanges on the issue of families being forced to sleep in hotels after leaving rental accommodation, a situation which committee chairman John McGuinness termed “extraordinary”.

“I’ve seen cases where families have ended up in hotels, and the cost of the hotel is far greater than the cost they would have to pay in the rented accommodation they were previously in.

“In most cases you can’t get into rental accommodation... why would social welfare be so inflexible in those cases where you find, for example, 10 families living in a hotel in Kilkenny that perhaps could have continued to be provided accommodated by landlords?

“It’s an awful waste of taxpayers’ money... It’s not working,” said the Fianna Fáil TD, addressing the secretary general of the Department of Social Protection Niamh O’Donoghue.

Following reports of thousands of letters being sent out to welfare recipients allegedly urging them to switch to electronic payments rather than post office collection, Ms O’Donoghue said of 2,800 such letters sent out by her department, only four per cent of recipients elected to switch to the electronic method.