When investigating eligibility for social assistance schemes, it is necessary to ask applicants to provide financial information as part of the means assessment process. It is normal practice that the customer is given the opportunity either to obtain the information him/herself directly from the financial institution or, alternatively, they can provide a mandate authorising a Social Welfare Inspector to obtain the information directly from the financial institution. Detailed statistics are not available about these requests to banks as this is a standard operational practice which is carried out as part of social assistance claim investigations.
The Programme for Government commits to a zero tolerance approach towards social welfare fraud. The Department’s Fraud Initiative 2011 – 2013 further articulates this overarching policy objective. A key priority is to ensure that fraudulent activity within the social welfare system is vigorously prevented and combatted. The approach is one which is aimed at highlighting the rights but, importantly, also the responsibilities of social welfare recipients.
Section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions (No.2) Act 2009 amended the Social Welfare Consolidation Act and included provision for the appointment of authorised officers who, in certain circumstances and with the consent of a designated officer, have the power to obtain information from financial institutions without the consent of the customer. This provision was operationalised in June 2012.
This particular provision is one that assists in the investigation of serious social welfare fraud and non-compliance cases. The measure is an exceptional one and is, accordingly, used judiciously and proportionally. Notifications are made in circumstances where the individual concerned has failed - or continues to fail - to make a voluntary disclosure and where there is evidence that fraud has occurred.
A total of 33 notification orders have been issued to a variety of financial institutions since June 2012. In a further 4 cases, the order was not proceeded with as the individual concerned made a voluntary disclosure before the notification issued to the financial institution. All requests have been complied with by the financial institutions concerned.
The provision has been used in the detection of identity fraud cases and instances whereby persons were employed under one identity and concurrently claiming social welfare payments under another. It has also been used to detect a number of cases where significant assets and capital were held and undisclosed.