Fraudulent or suspect claims have been a part of the state-run social welfare system in Ireland since its inception in the 1940s, an issue made more complex in recent times by immigration and reciprocal agreements with other European Union nations. However, for all its supposed prevalence, cases of deliberate fraud by applicants – or staff – are very much in the minority. In fact more money is misallocated due to clerical error by public servants than to criminal intent. Despite the much-hyped statement in April by Leo Varadkar, the ambitious Fine Gael Minister for Social Protection, that €506 million was saved in 2016 as a result of anti-fraud measures the true figure is closer to €41 million, as admitted in a departmental response to the Sinn Féin TD, Eoin Ó Broin.
So while social welfare fraud is undoubtedly a problem it is not one that requires the press-lauded resources that the FG-led government is intent on devoting to it, including new legislation and a €204,000 advertising campaign of dubious value. Putting all that to one side, the most objectionable part of Varadkar’s proposed regulations includes a plan to publicly name and shame individuals convicted of cheating the social welfare system. This form of state-sanctioned pillorying will require that convicted fraudsters have their home addresses published, inviting punitive actions by others. However, note this report from the Irish Times on the response by successive governments to “white-collar” crime:
The State’s regulatory agencies are so stretched by an “endemic” lack of resources that many reports of white-collar crime are not even being read by the authorities.
Remy Farrell SC said it was a “scandal” that investigators were “at breaking point”, with lack of investment enabling large-scale fraud to go undetected and costing the State millions in lost revenue.
He said raising penalties was “the lazy way for the political classes to give the appearance of doing something” but that these increases were “absolutely irrelevant” when detection rates were so low.
Speaking at the Bar Council’s annual conference, Mr Farrell said the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation had been “swamped” with reports of alleged white-collar crime since 2011, when it became an offence not to report them.
He said the bureau was receiving such a volume of complaints that it was struggling to process many of them.
Of those cases that gardaí had the time to consider, just one in 10 actually resulted in a prosecution, he added.
Of 37 countries analysed for a European Commission report on European justice systems in 2008, Ireland spent the least of all countries on the courts, prosecution services and legal aid.
Given the exorbitant levels of fraudulent and conspiratorial activity in the finance and banking sectors during the heyday of the Celtic Tiger one would assume that “middle-class” crime would be seen as a preventative priority in this Republic. Unfortunately that assumption is incorrect. Instead, a greater priority at the moment is the leadership ambitions of Leo Varadkar and the need to appeal to Fine Gael’s right-wing core vote and several equally right-wing newspapers.