Almost half a million welfare payment claims have been reviewed by the Government, leading to savings of more than €400 million as part of compliance and anti-fraud work.
The Department of Social Protection has put in place a number of teams who review the eligibility of welfare recipients as well as inspecting workplaces.
New information released by the department shows that last year, about 457,000 claims were reviewed.
The reviews were carried out through direct questions to the welfare recipient and other inspections, as well as inspections of employers’ workplaces and financial records. In-depth investigations were carried out where fraud was suspected.
Such investigations are undertaken by a dedicated section, the Employment Status Investigations Unit (ESIU), which is supported by seconded officers from An Garda Síochána who are specifically assigned to help with complex investigations.
In 2021, the department considered 274 cases for prosecution, and by the end of the year the Chief State Solicitors Office had 417 such cases active in the court system.
As part of the team’s work, 35,000 reviews of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment were carried out which resulted in what the department labels as “control savings” of €66 million.
Surveys were also carried out on the Jobseekers Allowance and the One-Parent Child Benefit.
Separately, an employment status investigation unit probed the employment status of workers to make sure they were correctly classified as employed or self-employed.
The unit examined 90 companies and more than 450 workers, which led to full employment status investigations of over 100 individual workers. Last year’s investigations by this unit resulted in PRSI savings of about €280,000.
The Department of Social Protection said the requests for such investigations came from a range of customers including workers, employers, other areas of the department and the Office of the Revenue Commissioners.
“The ESIU conducted employment status investigations in a wide range of sectors during 2021, including the construction, meat processing, security, entertainment, delivery service and media sectors. Work in 2021 was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, limiting much of the work to remote investigations. The unit was able to conduct on-site investigations again once the restrictions were eased,” the department said.
The department has also said that overall, there is an onus on customers to report changes in their lives or circumstances.
“Even small changes in income or family circumstances can impact on the rate of payment a person is entitled to receive. The consequences of these changes can be significant, particularly as overpayments accumulate quickly. This can result in repayments having to be made from ongoing social welfare payments or earnings for long periods.”
Separately, a safeguarding unit last year followed up on more than 250 reports of alleged abuse of social protection customers over the age of 18.
In 2021 a total of 265 case referrals were received by the unit within the department, which included 185 relating to alleged financial abuse and 34 relating to allegations of neglect. By the end of April this year, 249 of these referrals were closed, while 11 were investigated by inspectors and 23 were referred to the HSE’s safeguarding protection team for investigation.
The department said it consulted or involved as appropriate other relevant agencies such as the HSE safeguarding protection teams, An Post and An Garda Síochána.
This comes after it emerged earlier this year that almost 16,000 cases of elder abuse had been reported within HSE-funded services for older people over the past five years.
The number of abuse concerns relating to over-65s increased from 3,029 in 2016 to a peak of 3,412 in 2020, the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The most common type of concern reported to the HSE over the period involved psychological abuse, which accounted for 35 per cent of reports in 2020.
Physical abuse accounted for 23 per cent of cases in that year, while 19 per cent involved financial abuse, according to the HSE’s national safeguarding office. Neglect was involved in 15 per cent of cases, and self-neglect in 4 per cent.