Answering questions from Waterford TD John Deasy at the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, the Department’s Secretary General outlined projected welfare clawback figures for 2013–15.
Having queried what percentage of overpayments due to fraud and either claimant or clerical error are being recovered, the Fine Gael deputy was told that €127.2m worth of overpayments were recorded in 2013, of which €70.7m was recovered — up from €53m in 2012.
The PAC heard that a new checking system is only “live” since the end of last year, so restitution levels will improve further. In 2014, welfare overpayments totalled €124.4m, with €83m recovered. “And our expectation in 2015 is that we’ll be recovering in or around €90m,” Niamh O’Donoghue said.
Describing the moneys involved as “very significant”, John Deasy commented: “People who pay taxes and work hard for a living expect efficiency when it comes to recovering social welfare payments resulting from fraud or those paid out in error.
“The recovery systems are improving and should remind people who claim fraudulently there’s a better chance now they will be forced to return the money.”
The Department’s most senior official told the PAC she “would absolutely disagree with any suggestion that there is rampant fraud in the social welfare system. In terms of international comparisons there is no evidence to suggest that fraud in Ireland is out of step or out of kilter with the level of fraud anywhere else.”
Acknowledging that “one man’s customer error” — which is attributed to 30-40% of overpayment cases — “is another man’s fraud”, Mr Deasy asked if the extent of such mistakes is getting better or worse.
Ms O’Donoghue replied that the ratio of “suspected fraud” versus customer/administrative error when it comes to overpayments “has been increasing... [so] it’s not something we can be complacent about.”
Public Services Card
Regarding the new Public Services Card, which the Government is planning to invest another €17-18m in rolling out, Deputy Deasy asked “has that made an appreciable difference with regard to fraud.”
The Secretary General confirmed that the €24m contract is based on a target of 3 million cards being issued by the end of 2016. Some 1.4m are currently in circulation.
She said 62 cases of fraud had been identified already through the card’s associated facial recognition software. The new technology “allows us to uncover it very quickly, and very serious cases arose out of that which have gone through the courts,” with custodial sentences ensuing.
“The evidence to date is significant. It’s certainly in the millions,” she told Mr Deasy. “It also has a huge preventative role” in that, because they have to go through a registration process, “people are less inclined to perpetuate identity fraud to try and make multiple claims when they know we have the infrastructure now to check who they are.
“So yes, we really feel it has contributed enormously on the fraud side, as well as the customer service side, as we also have close to 400,000 people now with a Public Service Card with the free travel badge on it which provides much greater security to transport providers in terms of who is entitled to it.”