Increased scrutiny: social welfare

ANONYMOUS tip-offs about welfare cheats have increased by 748% since the start of the recession, according to figures obtained by the Sunday Tribune.

There were 1,735 reports received in the first four months of 2009 compared to 232 for the same period last year. Only 180 reports were received in 2007.

Tip-offs relating to those working and claiming welfare at the same time received the most significant increase, rising from 95 and 90 in 2007 and 2008 respectively, to 721 this year.

There were also dramatic increases in reports of cohabiting couples cheating the system and those claiming benefits from outside the country.

The Department of Social Welfare employs about 600 people in fraud control and the prevention of "abuse of the social welfare system".

Last year, 560,000 cases were reviewed by staff compared to just 350,000 the year before, while savings of €476m were made catching attempted fraud and internal administrative errors, an increase of €29m on 2007.

Electronic payments to new jobseeker payment applicants were abolished last year, forcing recipients to attend post offices, thereby confirming residency in the country.

If two consecutive payments go uncollected, the claim is automatically suspended.

Social welfare recipients have also been required to start carrying valid photo ID to collect payments at post offices.

In 2008, 357 cases of social welfare fraud were forwarded to the Chief State Solicitor's office for legal proceedings. Of those, 328 cases ended up in court with two prison sentences handed down, along with 19 suspended sentences and 208 fines.

"In recent times, the special investigation unit undertook more regular interviews of jobseeker recipients, particularly those with high risk ratings," a spokeswoman in the department said.

"Border regions have put an increased emphasis on controls on claims from applicants with a previous address in Northern Ireland and department officials are involved in a number of high visibility multi-agency projects."

The spokeswoman added: "One parent family payment recipients with earnings are also targeted for review."