PAC Meeting | May 28, 2015
Department of Social Protection called and examined
Deputy John Deasy:
Regarding rent supplement and fraud, I will refer to the different schemes and payments. Every now and then there is a news story about the Department tackling fraud and saving hundreds of millions of euro.
I believe that gives people an impression that there is a massive amount of fraud taking place but, to be clear, when we compare some of our schemes to the fraud levels in the United Kingdom rent supplement schemes it seems they are higher, not by much but they are higher.
Those are the figures I have seen. How does Ms O'Donoghue respond generally to the notion that there is rampant fraud in the social welfare system? She knows the corresponding figures for different jurisdictions.
Is it a fair statement to say there is rampant fraud in the social welfare schemes? There will always be a certain percentage of it but is the fraud in some schemes worse than others?
Ms Niamh O'Donoghue [Secretary General, Department of Social Protection]: I would absolutely disagree with any suggestion that there is rampant fraud in the social welfare system.
It varies from scheme to scheme depending on the nature and type of schemes involved. One of the things we do in the Department is categorise schemes into high, low and medium risk, and the high risk schemes are the ones on which we wish to spend most attention.
But in terms of international comparisons, there is no evidence to suggest that the level of fraud in Ireland is out of kilter with the level of fraud anywhere else.
I refer back to my opening statement. The evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of social welfare claimants are receiving the payments to which they are entitled, so fraud is not an issue. What we are looking at is a very small number of people who are engaged in activity, and it is our job to try to minimise the opportunity for that.
Deputy John Deasy: With regard to rent supplement, the figure I have for estimated fraud is 2.9%. The rent supplement survey established that cases paid directly to the client had an 18% rate of fraud and error while those paid to a nominated person, in other words, the landlord, had a 10% rate of fraud and error.
Has the Department considered making that payment directly to the landlord to minimise that differential as a condition of the scheme?
Niamh O'Donoghue: This is something that has surfaced on many occasions and the view of the Department always has been that the contract for rent supplement is with the claimant.
The rent agreement is between the claimant and the landlord, and it is only at the request of the claimant that we would directly make the payment to the landlord.
The real issue is a control issue for us in terms of following people through, getting communication in terms of change of circumstances or change of address, and tracking whether people are in particular locations or not.
Rent supplement was never intended to be a long-term scheme. The intention is that, over time, people who have a long-term housing need will move, in the first instance, into the housing assistance payment, HAP system, which is now up and running, and then, prospectively, into other social housing if that is a better option for them.
That is an entirely different contractual arrangement and method of payment, which probably offers better security to the State.
John Deasy: I think all Deputies got this literature in their pigeon holes this morning.
Niamh O'Donoghue: Yes.
Deputy John Deasy: What motivated Ms O'Donoghue to print this?
Niamh O'Donoghue: It is to make people aware that there is such a protocol in place and that if there is a danger of homelessness, there are arrangements in place to deal with that. It seemed, certainly from recent publicity, that this may not be as widely known or understood as we would wish it to have been.
Deputy John Deasy: Is the Department coming across that? Obviously, there was a tangible reason within the Department for this-----
Niamh O'Donoghue: We now have almost 2,000 people who are in rent supplement arrangements under this tenancy sustainment protocol, which allows for particular circumstances to be taken into account in determining the rent to be paid.
That has been a hugely effective operation in working with the local authorities and Threshold. Obviously, however, there is still publicity concerning people at risk of homelessness and calls for rent supplement ceilings to be improved or increased.
We really just wanted to make people aware that this facility, this flexibility, does exist where those circumstances prevail, and 2,000 families have already availed of that.
John Deasy: I have one final question, on the Department's definitions with regard to customer error and fraud. I read the definitions. The specific difference, I suppose, is that where somebody provides information, it is deemed fraud if there is in the opinion of the Department an intention to provide false information.
Consider the customer error rates in the various categories. With regard to the jobseeker’s payment, customer error was identified in 119 of the cases assessed. That is quite a large figure. Fraud was suspected in 21 of the 987 cases assessed.
When it comes to rent supplement, that figure is down to 55. Someone might play devil’s advocate with regard to the Department's definitions and its interpretation of those definitions when it comes to the question of fraud versus customer error.
It is a fine line, in many respects, and the interpretation involves a judgment call by the actual social welfare officer. Are there increases across the board in customer errors based on the Department’s assessments? Does the figure remain the same? Are the ratios stagnant?
"Has the rate of customer error gone up? It is subjective. One man's customer error is another man's fraud."
Niamh O'Donoghue: The trend in recent years is that the proportion of overpayments raised due to suspected fraud has been increasing rather than customer error. Thankfully, the proportion attributable to departmental error has been decreasing, which is also welcome. Obviously, it is not something we can be complacent about.
The Deputy is absolutely right that it is a subjective judgment, but it is a judgment made by a deciding officer having regard to the entire set of circumstances by which something arises. The level of previous engagement with or the case history of the individual concerned is also taken into account before the judgment is made.
Deputy John Deasy: Has the rate of customer error gone up? It is subjective. One man's customer error is another man's fraud.
Niamh O'Donoghue: Yes.
John Deasy: Across the board, has the rate of customer error in the various schemes increased?
Niamh O'Donoghue: Perhaps I could give the Deputy some figures. In 2013, of the overpayments raised, 34% were considered to be attributable to customer error. In 2014, it was 40%. So far this year — this is very preliminary stuff to the end of April 2015 — it is 38%.
We have significantly improved our investment in the training of deciding officers, and we have also put in place a fairly sophisticated new system of debt recovery and assessment, which means we are raising overpayments in a much more timely way.
Decisions are being made much closer to an event occurring rather than at some time prospectively. That probably improves the consistency with which things are defined.
John Deasy: We have invested and are proposing to invest an awful lot more money, €17 million or €18 million, in the public services card. Has that made an appreciable difference with regard to fraud, as Ms O'Donoghue sees it?
Niamh O'Donoghue: Absolutely. There is a fixed cost associated with the public service card. We are in a contract, the value of which is €24 million. That is based on a presumption that we will issue 3 million cards by the end of 2016. To date, we have 1.4 million cards issued.
Obviously, this has been a progression in terms of ramping up our capacity to issue public service cards. What has happened is that somewhere in the order of 62 cases of fraud have actually been identified through the face-matching software that is associated with the public service card.
Equally, the public service card has contributed very significantly by virtue of us engaging with customers and inviting them to come in to be registered-----
John Deasy: Is Ms O'Donoghue saying that those 62 cases would not have been uncovered had the technology not been introduced?
Niamh O'Donoghue: I cannot say definitively that they would never have been uncovered, but let us say that the technology allowed us to uncover them very quickly. Very serious cases were identified that have gone through the courts, and custodial sentences have been handed down.
It also has a secondary effect. We have been inviting people to come in, and we now have the legislative power to suspend or stop a payment if somebody does not engage with us. On foot of that, somewhere over 200 payments have been stopped by virtue of people not attending, having gone through a whole range of natural justice processes to enable them to attend to be registered.
We really feel that it has contributed enormously on the fraud side, as well as the customer service side. Close to 400,000 people now have a public service card with the free travel badge on it, which provides much greater security to transport providers in relation to providing a service to people who are actually entitled to it.
John Deasy: With regard to the money we have invested and are proposing to invest, I believe Ms O’Donoghue said 3 million cards are to be issued by the end of 2016.
Niamh O'Donoghue: Yes.
John Deasy: Is this going to save an appreciable amount of money?
Niamh O'Donoghue: I would think so. I could not quantify precisely the fraud impact but the evidence to date is significant. The figure is certainly in the millions. Obviously, it has an ongoing effect and a huge preventative role.
Since people have to go through the registration process, they may be less inclined to try to perpetuate identity fraud. They may be less inclined to try to make multiple claims when they know we now have the infrastructure to check who they are.
Obviously, the card also has the potential to be of far greater use in a public service context. We are working with a range of Government Departments and organisations to make sure that becomes a reality, too, particularly in terms of online services. This is because we have the infrastructure to allow identity to be authenticated through the card.
John Deasy: I thank Ms O’Donoghue.