Priority Questions.

Social Welfare Fraud.

Michael Ring

Question:

77 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the amount her Department's investigations into social welfare fraud cost in the past year; the number of people in her Department who were involved in the investigation process and at what cost; the number of people who were prosecuted; and the number of people who were specifically prosecuted for fraud of the rent supplement scheme. [4572/04]

The detection of fraud and abuse of the social welfare system is an integral part of the day-to-day work of my Department. In this regard, all staff engaged in claims processing are concerned with preventing and detecting fraud and abuse. Controls are exercised at both the initial claim stage and subsequent stages during the claim life cycle. Claims are reviewed on a regular and targeted basis.

A special investigation unit, comprising 80 staff spread throughout the country, is involved in work specifically related to the investigation of employers and employees where fraud and abuse is suspected. These officers, some of whom work jointly with inspectors from the Revenue Commissioners, carry out inspections of employers with regard to their PRSI obligations as well as investigating cases where fraud or abuses of the schemes are suspected.

During 2003, 320,000 reviews of entitlements were carried out by my Department's staff. The records of 7,600 employers were inspected to ensure compliance with the Department's regulations and, in particular, to prevent and detect abuses of the system. Control activity in 2003 resulted in savings of €306,183. The estimated salary cost of control workper se in 2002 was in the region of €16.3 million and an additional €1.3 million was spent on related overtime, travel and subsistence. During the year, a total of 405 cases were forwarded by my Department to the Office of the Chief State Solicitor for the initiation of court proceedings. A total of 218 cases were finalised in court in that year. Of these, 11 served prison sentences, 17 received suspended sentences and 109 were fined.

Subject to my general direction and control, each health board is, in respect of its functional area, responsible for the administration of the functions relating to the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, under which rent supplements are paid. All health board staff engaged in work on the supplementary allowance scheme take measures to prevent and detect fraud and abuse and recover over-payments. I am reviewing the general position on the control of the supplementary allowance scheme, with particular reference to any legislative requirements that may be necessary to improve controls in this area.

I compliment the staff of the Department of Social and Family Affairs on the moneys they have saved the State. There is no time for anybody who defrauds the State or takes taxpayers' money illegitimately. I was glad to hear the Minister state in her reply that there are approximately 80 staff working on fraud on a full-time basis, costing approximately €16.3 million.

I asked the Minister about rent supplement but she did not answer my question. She has made major changes to the rent supplement scheme and the Department made much play of this on the basis that there was considerable fraud. Has anybody been prosecuted and convicted for defrauding this scheme? Have employers who did not make PRSI contributions for their employees been prosecuted?

I am glad the Government is putting in place the necessary staff and resources to detect those engaged in social welfare fraud. I hope similar resources will be put in place to combat tax defrauders and that the poor will not have to pay for such fraud while the rich get away without having to do so. This is why we have so many tribunals. I compliment the Minister and her staff on saving the taxpayers €320 million.

There is a difference between fraud and genuine mistakes by Department officials implementing social welfare schemes and those on the schemes. Sometimes people's circumstances change while they are benefiting from a social welfare scheme and they are not aware of the consequences. The Minister will say that their application forms state they are supposed to notify the Department of any changes in their income, but sometimes this does not happen because of genuine mistakes rather than fraud. Those who are defrauding the State, such as those drawing lone parent's allowance while living with somebody or those drawing unemployment benefit while working, should be dealt with.

I am advised that the rent supplement is administered on my behalf by the community welfare officers through the health boards. They have a different procedure in which they evaluate and address the issue of fraud. My Department is not directly involved in this and I have no figures regarding prosecutions. In the main, there have been none. It is on that basis that I have indicated that I will be examining any legislative requirements that may be necessary, given that the health boards do not have recourse to the Chief State Solicitor who would prosecute on my behalf.

The Deputy was anxious to ascertain the situation regarding employers. There are 7,561 employers who had PRSI inspections and 91% were found to be compliant. That is very high. It is based solely by reference to the amount of PRSI savings determined. The Deputy will notice that under PAYE-PRSI savings there will be in the region of €10.29 million. Of the prosecutions, I do not have a review of the types of cases taken, but the high percentage of compliance reflects that not many people have been prosecuted with regard to PAYE or PRSI. I compliment employers. This is a good step forward for people.

On the issue of balance, it is important to appreciate that non-compliance is not necessarily fraud. The Department may make a mistake or people make mistakes because they do not understand changes. In such circumstances where there is an overpayment people can be facilitated and they are not seen as fraudulent. It is important to have that facility in order to achieve a balance.

Social Welfare Benefits.

Willie Penrose

Question:

78 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the consultations that took place between her Department and the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform regarding changes that were introduced in the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, particularly in relation to the rent supplement; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4103/04]

Michael Ring

Question:

80 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the effect SI 728 of 2003 has on people applying for rent supplement; the precautions that she has put in place regarding crisis situations; the discussions which took place between her Department and the Department for Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister of State with responsibility for housing in relation to the changes; and the discussions that took place with the wide range of organisations that deal on a daily basis with persons on low income regarding the impact of this SI which came into effect on 31 January 2004. [4098/04]

Willie Penrose

Question:

81 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the assessment which was made on the impact of changes introduced in the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, particularly in relation to the rent supplement, prior to the issuing of recent circulars to community welfare officers; the assessment that was made of potential savings to the taxpayer and her Department arising from these changes prior to the issuing of these circulars; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3855/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 78, 80 and 81 together.

As Deputies are aware I have recently introduced a number of changes to the supplementary welfare allowance scheme under which rent and other supplements are paid. The main effect of these measures is to refocus the supplementary welfare allowance scheme on its original objective of providing short-term income support.

The measure that has attracted most comment is the requirement that a person applying for rent supplement must have been renting for six months. With certain very important exceptions, it will no longer be possible for a person to become a tenant in the private rented sector with the support of rent supplement unless the local authority is satisfied that he or she has a housing need. However, nobody who is assessed by a housing authority as having a housing need and who meets the normal means and other qualifying criteria will be refused rent supplement.

The new measures were the subject of extensive discussions within my Department over a number of months. Their impact was fully assessed and the manner of their implementation has been carefully designed to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups such as the homeless, the elderly and the disabled are fully protected. The six-month prior to renting requirement will not apply in their case. In effect, the only people who will no longer qualify for rent supplement because of the six month rule are people who, in the opinion of the housing authority, do not have a housing need.

In any event, none of the measures which I have introduced affect the discretion of a health board to make a payment in cases where a board considers that the circumstances of the case so warrant.

Regarding consultation with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputies will be aware that a planning group on future rent assistance arrangements has been in place for some time, with representatives of both Departments, the Department of Finance and others.

Arising from the work of this group, an action plan is being developed on housing needs. Some of the measures that were announced in the Book of Estimates, including the six-month rule, were first considered in the discussions on the action plan prior to the Estimates announcements in November 2003.

My Department has also had detailed consultations with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government following the Estimates announcement, and in the context of preparing the regulations which gave effect to the rent supplement changes and the circular to health boards which set out the detail of the changes.

My Department also consulted with health board representatives, including community welfare officers and their managers. Discussions were also held with relevant Departments on other aspects of the Estimates announcements.

I also met representatives of a number of organisations who expressed their concerns to me regarding the changes. At that meeting, I explained the background of the changes and I outlined the specific provisions that are being made to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups are fully protected in the course of implementing the measures.

I also met representatives of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions as well as the community and voluntary pillar of the social partnership, including the Disability Federation of Ireland, the INOU, the St. Vincent de Paul and others. These discussions gave me an opportunity to hear a broad range of views and to explain further the purpose of the measures and the manner of their implementation. I indicated my support for their desire to keep under review the impact of the new measures under the provisions of the social partnership agreement Sustaining Progress.

It is estimated that the new measures will lead to savings in the region of €19 million per annum. This is equivalent to about 3% of spending on the SWA scheme. I am confident that the changes which I have introduced will not have a negative impact on vulnerable people but instead will better target available resources and provide an improved outcome both from the point of view of claimants and also of the need for an effective and streamlined system of State assistance for people with a housing need.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The length of her reply highlights the fact that the initiatives taken by her indicate a clear lack of integrated policy in planning on social housing by the Government. The eligibility requirements are designed to press the issue of housing need further into the lap of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. However, the problem is that no adequate alternative has been put in place to supplant the rent supplement, despite years of studying housing needs.

The Minister is excluding a spouse or a person in remunerative full-time employment from receiving rent supplement from 1 January 2004; she is adding a requirement to have rented for six months in the preceding 12 months; and there must be a refusal of local authority accommodation. A refusal refers to a second offer of accommodation from a housing authority without any continuous period of 12 months. What categories of people is this aimed at? Is it aimed at one-parent families or single people? In Dublin alone, 30% of all of the housing lists consist of lone parents and one-child households. Is it the Government's intention that a household should now be made up of three generations, which is conceivable? For example, what happens a woman who becomes a lone parent? Is she to be compelled to share a room overcrowded with sisters or brothers? Is that the impact of this? Does the Minister agree that community welfare officers carry out a rigorous assessment when determining eligibility for a rent supplement and that under the Housing Act 1988, they must do so? Is this aimed at further limiting their discretion and ability to respond to genuine need, or is this a turf war between the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government over funding at the expense of those who are genuinely in need of rent supplement? That is important and I want a straight answer.

At what stage was the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government consulted about these changes? Is the Minister aware that many local authorities are asking CWOs not to refer people for assessment? Is the Minister aware that local authorities do not have the personnel, the resources or time to carry out assessments? What additional resources will be given to local authorities to deal with the anticipated increase in applications for assessment required under those regulations? Will this increase not slow down the entire assessment process, thereby affecting those in greatest need? How has the Minister projected the savings involved and how will these measurements, aimed at the most vulnerable people in our society, save money in the long term? It is foolhardy. The Minister had a surplus of €550 million at the end of 2003. One tenth of that would have scrapped the "savage 16", and put a stop to the torture and annoyance of the people who are most vulnerable.

This is not being targeted at any particular group. Initially in 1998 a Government decision was made that the matter of supplementary welfare rent allowance would be transferred to the Department of the Environment and Local Government and it would be administered by the local authorities. There was consultation since 1998 and a report was prepared, but we could not get full agreement on the basis of what was being proposed.

From my communications with the community and voluntary pillar and members of the Deputy's committee, it is clear that people agree that rent supplement is not a long-term solution to a person's housing need. It has been detrimental to people because they are often seen by the housing authority as having their housing needs adequately met. I would not necessarily agree with that as they are in danger of being overlooked when it comes to rehousing. Furthermore, I have introduced within the regulations a number of factors to ensure that the most vulnerable are not affected: those over 65, people who receive a disability allowance; those in receipt of invalidity and blind pensions; people on housing listsper se, as they currently exist; those who come under the homeless sections of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government; and people in receipt of rent supplement.

Contrary to a misnomer aired abroad by some, but not all, community welfare officers, I am not vilifying CWOs. They have done an excellent job on my behalf and on behalf of a number of other agencies. They are flexible and it is because of this that they have been able to deal with particular emergency circumstances, which heretofore were outside the rigours of most legislation. I have not changed that. Section 31 of the Act, which facilitates such determinations, has not been removed, amended or anything like it. Therefore, those flexibilities will be given to the CWOs.

I would agree with the Deputy that an integrated approach is the only way forward. I have put together with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister, Deputy Cullen, in particular, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, an action plan to determine how the issue of the housing needs of those in receipt of rent supplement can best be addressed. I have worked strenuously in consultation with a number of people and groups to ensure we provide a more integrated approach. I appreciate that local authorities, perhaps, are somewhat in a twilight zone until such time as the joint memorandum by both Ministers is forwarded and agreed by Government. However, on balance it is the best way to address the issue.

When one considers the €637 million being provided this year for supplementary welfare schemes of which €360 million will be made available for rent supplement, I would bet if the local authorities were offered €100 million as an inducement for being more progressive towards long-term needs, they could do it.

Although I appreciate there may be concerns within the local authorities about the processes by which they can evaluate a housing application, we can work on the ground to address those issues on a one-to-one basis. We will arrange contact between local authorities and the CWOs and facilitate them in the best possible ways. This has not resulted in a turf war but a greater awareness of the necessity to ensure that this funding is used in the best way possible to support the people who are less well off. I am sure Deputies are aware from their constituencies that people often buy a second house on the basis that they will get supplementary welfare to pay off their mortgages. That is not necessarily the best way to address people's personal housing needs. One other issue raised by the Deputy has slipped my mind. If I recall it, perhaps the Ceann Comhairle might allow me to reply.

Deputy Noel Ahern publicly stated that he, as the Minister of State in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with responsibility for housing, had not been contacted by the Minister or her Department as regards the recent rent supplement changes. Is that not a serious situation where the Minister was making major changes as regards people's housing conditions in this country and she did not discuss it with the Minister of State who is expected to provide the necessary housing for people getting rent supplements?

Last week the Minister met the community and voluntary groups and sent out a press release. I could not understand the press release because I got the impression from it that she had suspended what she had signed into law. That is not the case, as I learned from her Department today. She has signed the new rent supplement regulations into law. What did the Minister promise the groups? Will she clarify whether it is a review in a year or a month's time? From the press release it looked as if everything was sorted out.

In answer to the previous question the Minister told me — and she and her Department are to be complimented — that she saved €300 million last year on fraud. However, as Deputy Penrose said, some €57 million will be saved on the 16 savage cutbacks which the Minister signed into law early in the new year. Why did she have to attack the rent supplement scheme before enough housing units were in place to accommodate people who are living rough in this city? The news yesterday highlighted the fact that a bus picks up people who are homeless in this city and tries to get accommodation for them, every night of the week. However, the Minister restricts the rent supplement for people who really need it and who will find themselves on the street.

That is a good question.

There are good social welfare officers who are compassionate and others who work strictly by the rules of the book who will say: "I am sorry, I cannot help, you do not qualify because the Minister has signed this regulation into law." How will the Minister deal with these kind of problems?

As usual, I will have to put a few facts to the House. I do not recall the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, making any such statement.

He did.

He does not recall it either, I would say.

I read what was said by a press officer who was not involved in any way with any contacts I had with the Minister of State. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government would have been fully briefed at Cabinet andau fait with the development taking place, as would all of us.

The Minister is not talking to him.

I have spoken to him hundreds of times. I do not remember how many times he was in my office discussing this issue and others, with regard to housing policy, putting together the action plan between both Departments which will be made available in the near future.

He said the Minister did not discuss it——

One does not always necessarily believe what one reads in the newspaper.

The Minister is not bad in that regard.

If I was Deputy Ring I would not answer that one. As regards the process, there is always the opportunity to appeal to the superintendent community welfare officer. Equally, I have noticed that when there are reviews of particular concerns, they are forwarded to my own Department. Deputy Durkan appears to have a problem in his part of the world.

I once heard of a fellow who won an appeal.

This matter can also go to my own Department and its senior officials who have been more than forthcoming in supporting people.

Deputy Ring spoke about people who are living rough. It is a terrible reflection on society that there are people like that. It does not matter whether they support a political party or not. I was most emphatic, on that basis, that people who find themselves in that situation would not find themselves affected in any way by the changes I have introduced in rent supplement. I must reiterate, in case people misunderstand what is happening — now I remember, Deputy Penrose spoke about a family living in overcrowded conditions — an assessment would indicate if there is overcrowding and the person would get on the housing list. On that basis such a person would be facilitated with rent supplement, hopefully as a temporary measure. That is the system where there is an assessment of a housing need. Under section 31, situations are allowed for whereby something not anticipated may be facilitated. For once we now have a fairly progressive and integrated debate on the issue of long-term housing needs for many people.

Some 40% of the private rented market in this country is supported by supplementary welfare. What does that say about the psyche of what is happening?

There is a serious housing problem?

The Government is paying for housing.

There should be great opportunities for Departments such as my own or housing authorities to work with the private rented sector to address the issue of long-term need. The action plan on housing will examine developmental ways of dealing with people's long-term needs. Some 2,000 elderly people are in receipt of supplementary welfare allowance. I do not view that as a progressive way of dealing with their housing needs. They would be better served in a small council or corporation-owned house that could be passed on in due course.

Will the Minister ensure that those officials who issued the circular on 24 December, Christmas Eve, will notify community welfare officers of the discretion provided for in section 31?

Community welfare officers now have the power to use their discretion regarding persons made homeless or forced to use homeless facilities. Is it the case that this will result in an increase in the number of people presenting as homeless, thereby putting greater pressure on an already over-burdened homeless service?

Paragraph 8.1 of circular 05/03 of 24 December 2003 states:

New applications for crèche supplements should not be approved after 1 January 2004. The objective of this measure is to discontinue the provision of long-term supports to crèches through the SWA scheme in favour of more sustainable funding through more appropriate sources.

Is it legal to cut back, as directed in that circular, a supplement established under legislation and honoured in custom and practice for 27 years? The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, tried similar action by way of circulars 14/92 and 18/92 but both had to be withdrawn following a challenge in the courts. Is the Minister satisfied that circular 05/03 provides her with the legal power to withdraw crèche supplements?

Natural justice indicates that, if sustainable funding through more appropriate sources is to replace the supplement, the sources should be indicated and the funding put in place before the unilateral withdrawal of an arrangement which has sufficiently sustained the operation for 27 years. I know the Minister believes such supplements should be made only in the short term. We are now providing that those in receipt of payment up to 31 December 2003 will retain it and those not in receipt of such payment at that date will not receive it. The Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or Health and Children have not provided details on this matter. We are introducing legislation that may fall when tested.

Our regulations are based on our primary legislative framework. Crèche supplements were outside regulation and are best placed under interceptional needs payments. I assure people that there is a transitional period for crèche supplements. There are a number of crèches in Dublin, in particular, 90% of which are supported by the Department of Health and Children and 10% of which are supported by crèche supplements. I assure people that crèches with particular needs will be facilitated through the exceptional needs payment.

I agree that the general view is that we may create greater difficulties in the area of homelessness. I met the community organisations and will keep the implementation of these procedures under constant review. I trust that answers Deputy Ring's question.

Paudge Connolly

Question:

79 Mr. Connolly asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the fact that Ireland is the only existing State to grant free unlimited access to social welfare services to citizens of the ten new EU accession states from May 2004; and her further views on the impact this will have on the existing social welfare scheme. [4250/04]

Free movement of persons is one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Community law and includes the right to live and work in another member state. The right of free movement does not only concern workers, but also other categories of people such as students, pensioners and EU citizens in general.

While EU treaties provide for citizens of the accession states to move freely through the enlarged EU, they do not provide automatic access to labour markets. In this area, the EU has put in place a transitional measure which will allow each member state to exercise discretion on the extent of access to their respective labour markets.

Existing Community law requires that a worker from another member state, including a worker who has become involuntarily unemployed, cannot be treated differently from a national worker by reason of their nationality and shall be entitled to the same social and tax advantages as nationals. Accordingly, such persons are entitled to receive the same treatment as Irish nationals under our employment, social welfare and taxation laws. However, a question has arisen as to whether an EU national seeking work for the first time in another member state is entitled to the same social and tax advantages as a national of that state. This issue is being contested before the European Court of Justice.

Specific EU provisions govern the right of residence of pensioners, students, and non-economically active persons. In general, inactive persons have the right to enter and remain in the country on condition that they have sufficient resources and health insurance to ensure they will not be a burden on the state.

I am conscious of the need to ensure that the social welfare system is not open to abuse following enlargement. To this end, I have asked my Department to examine what further actions are needed to ensure a rigorous enforcement of EU provisions in this area, especially in regard to non-active persons. It is also our intention to monitor the potential migration flows from the new accession states from May onwards and their possible impact on services and policies.

Is the Minister concerned that Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands have decided to regulate immigration? Those countries had initially decided to allow people in but have now decided regulation is the safer course. They are larger and relatively richer countries than Ireland and have larger populations which could more easily absorb such immigrants.

Should Ireland continue to stand alone in this regard? Should it continue to pay social welfare and other benefits to such people? As has been pointed out by many health boards, these people will be a drain on our health, housing and school services. Ireland faces a major housing shortage. Many of immigrants have been housed in inhumane places such as Mosney and so on. That is not good enough.

Is the Minister concerned that many people, who come here from relatively poor countries, are expected to live on allowances of €20 and €27 per week? Does she believe Ireland can cater for all comers and, if so, do we have jobs for them? We speak about ensuring that they have adequate cover before being issued with work permits. I do not believe such people will have adequate health cover. That will not happen.

Is the Minister concerned that many people will come here? The world has become a much smaller place and people are willing to travel. Will pensioners from such countries be entitled to allowances here and does the Minister think many people will do so? Would it not be sensible to take another look at this issue? Does the Government propose to reconsider the fact that Ireland is the only country prepared to accept such people from 1 May 2004? Should we not consider the introduction of a tariff or quota system in this regard? We are Ireland of the welcomes but there must be a reason other countries are not prepared to accept people from eastern countries.

It is important to outline a number of facts. In 2002, the Department of Enterprise and Employment issued 14,000 work permits to nationals of enlargement countries. Some 16,500 permits were issued in 2003, half of which were renewals. It is obvious that, in the main, people will be coming to Ireland to work. The Government view is that openness in the labour market is important.

Claims from non-nationals tend to come from the UK and not from those of member states with less favourable economic conditions and welfare systems. Fewer than 600 non-nationals here are in receipt of unemployment benefit. That represents a small percentage. It was estimated, when Greece and Portugal joined the EU, that between 1.5 million and 1.6 million migrants would arrive in Ireland. The number of Spanish people here averaged at approximately 7,700 during the 11 years after the accession of those countries to the EU.

The availability of work will be the attraction for people coming to Ireland. Inactive people, such as pensioners and students, are not entitled to stay here and can only do so if they not economically dependent on the State or its health services. Everyone is free to travel but people must not be an economic burden on the State. This has been the case for a number ofyears.

Concerns have been expressed by the UK regarding the active population. Prime Minister Blair indicated he would introduce changes, but the following day Jack Straw indicated they would not happen. It is difficult to ascertain what will happen in the UK. However, if there is a significant burden on, or overburdening of, the social welfare system, we will avail of the procedures provided under the accession agreement.

An interdepartmental committee is completing its work on the implications of accession from a number of perspectives. This issue is being further examined. I intend to monitor migration flows but, contrary to what was said regarding the accession states previously, large numbers did not migrate and I do not anticipate a scenario such as benefit tourism occurring in Ireland. We are taking the opportunity to indicate to people not to travel to Ireland unless they have a job and can provide for themselves adequately. This is a topical issue that is causing angst but, at the same time, it is best to examine the issue fully. I do not anticipate an overburdening of the welfare system.