Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Ceisteanna (81)

John Gormley

Ceist:

139 Mr. Gormley asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs her views on the recent value for money report issued by the Comptroller and Auditor General on social welfare overpayments. [7926/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí scríofa (Ceist ar Minister for Family)

Control of fraud, abuse and error is an essential part of the my Department's work. Fraud and abuse of the social welfare system represents a misuse of taxpayers money. My Department's efforts are directed at ensuring that social welfare funds go only to those who are entitled to them.

The report examined the extent to which my Department's existing control activity is related to an assessment of the risks of fraud and error attaching to different schemes. It also looked at the effectiveness of performance in the control area generally. One of the main lessons to emerge from it is the need for a control activity to be based on a risk assessment and risk management approach. My Department will progress this area in the period ahead. This approach was also recommended in the report of a working group on the accountability of secretaries general and accounting officers published in 2003.

The Comptroller and Auditor General's report acknowledges the emphasis the new control strategy places on the undertaking of risk analysis of schemes to identify and prioritise those where there is the highest risk of fraud and abuse. My Department is putting the strategy in place. The risk analysis process commenced in late 2003 and action plans are currently being prepared in the light of the findings.

As part of the review, and in consultation with the Comptroller and Auditor General's office, my Department carried out a survey of the unemployment and one-parent family payment schemes to assess the underlying levels of fraud and error. Surveys will become part of the overall control strategy and three surveys are planned for this year. The report also includes an examination of detected overpayments. It found that fraud accounted for 48% of all overpayments detected.

The report emphasised that an analysis of detected overpayments gives a useful insight into the main causes of overpayments. It is a valuable pointer to areas where action needs to be taken either by implementing new controls or modifying existing procedures to reduce the level and value of overpayments.

At present my Department is setting up a new central overpayments and debt management system. When fully operational it will provide a facility to enhance the targeting of control work and make overpayment recovery more effective. It will also provide better and more up to date information on the main types of fraud and error occurring within schemes.

The report also emphasised the use of prosecutions as a deterrent against fraud. My Department considers all cases of fraud and abuse for prosecution and revised prosecution guidelines were issued to staff in February 2003. In 2003 as many as 482 cases were sent to my Department's central prosecutions service and 405 of them were referred for prosecution.

The report also suggests that it may be worth considering a greater array of sanctions such as administrative penalties. My Department has already done some work in this area and is in consultation with the Attorney General's office in the matter.

Overall the Comptroller and Auditor General's report is a worthwhile examination of control activity in my Department. It raised a number of issues that will be taken on board in the context of implementing a control strategy. In 2003 my Department realised total savings of €306.18 million in combating fraud and abuse involving 320,000 claim reviews and 7,600 employer inspections.