Last week Michael Clifford wrote in the Irish Examiner:
“There is a nasty streak out there at the moment concerning attitudes to social welfare recipients. Burton and the Government are obviously softening up public opinion for cutbacks in the budget. The tactic is base and demonises large swathes of the population with no justification.”
Clifford was writing about a story which was released to the media by Labour senator Jimmy Harte, from Donegal. It concerned an anonymous family which allegedly earned €90k in social welfare payments. Harte said he obtained the figures from a confidential source.
This was discussed on RTE Radio One’s Saturday with Charlie Bird with a panel that included Clifford, Mark Fielding, CEO of ISME, Breda O’Brien, of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed and Dr Kieran Allen, from UCD.
Charlie Bird: “Michael Clifford, last week, in the Irish Examiner, you wrote a story where you said: “There is a nasty streak out there at the moment concerning attitudes to social welfare recipients.” Quite a controversial statement. Why?”
Michael Clifford: “Well Charlie I don’t know how controversial it was but it just strikes me there is an awful lot of…I wrote that in relation to a story that was around at the time that one family were in receipt of around €90,000 on social welfare. And when you go through the figures, and I think it was Robert Lynch of the INOU, who did it on the air first. When you go through the figures, you see that the sums simply don’t stack up. And it was just typical of a number of stories that are being put out there, that suggest that people on social welfare are more or less, living it up, that they are not living on the basic sort of level that one would expect in terms of social welfare.
“That, I believe, is coming from two separate areas. One, everybody, from what you might call, the middle and lower-income earners down have been savaged by cuts to their wages, by taxes, extra charges, etc. Everybody is feeling very strapped. As a result, a lot of that frustration gets passed down to those who are out of work. The second strand to it is the Government. Because of our situation, because the Troika are in here, there needs to be huge cuts or the policies there are going to be huge cuts in the forthcoming budget – that money has to come from somewhere.”
Bird: “So you think this is a softening up process?”
Clifford: “I believe so. First of all, if they are to make these cuts, they’re constrained by the Croke Park Agreement, therefore the money has to come from somewhere. We’ve heard figures about what can be garnered from social welfare fraud, that I find quite unbelievable and it strikes me as an effort to go looking for money somewhere, to look for some easy touch to get it. And also, I would imagine, that there are plans to make cuts to social welfare – not the basic rates of job seeker’s allowance and that, but a lot of the extras. And you also see, they’re the areas where all these stories have been coming out of over the last couple of months.”
Dr Kieran Allen: “… I don’t think it’s just sections of the media. Unfortunately Labour party politicians, for their own reasons, have started off this campaign. Joan Burton started talking about this being a ‘lifestyle choice’. And that Senator Jimmy Harte, I think is his name, who put out this story. And I just want to compliment Michael (Clifford) and indeed the INOU on a brilliant refutation of it. Because, often the way the media work, is you get these sensationalised stories and people don’t look under the surface.The reality in this country is that only 1% of social welfare claimants are involved in any fraudulent activity. In every country the figures show that there is more money unclaimed, because people do not know their rights, than actually goes in fraud..
Bird: “You say only 1%.”
Dr Allen: “Yes.”
Bird: “Because there seems to be this view abroad that it’s an enormous amount of money…”
Allen: “Yeah, but that’s the point. You see you don’t hear those basic facts because the way the media operates is these sensationalised stories. And who would hear, in this country, that there is more money unclaimed, because people do not know their rights, than [there] is fraud.You never hear that in the media. And when you actually look at the facts what you find, always, is that there’s an attempt to scapegoat people when there’s austerity. Austerity policies are just not working, they’re a complete failure. And what we’re getting here is a form of anger displacement where people, instead of looking at the real problem, start picking on lone parents, public sector workers, the unemployed.
It’s the same old story.”
Mark Fielding: “We had about €85million of overpayments in the social welfare in, in the last year. And the minister came out and said that 31% of that was fraudulent. And there was a big news item made of that. What about the 69% of overpayments that’s due to incompetence in the social welfare system? I mean that is the actual story – not the 31% of fraud that they’re actually after.There’s 69% incompetence in there so the civil servants aren’t able to do their job.”
Allen: “..how many stories has there been, for example, about the tax collection from business? I mean if you look, for example, at the Irish Revenue system, it’s very lax in terms of going after, for example, even corporation profits tax, checking out the allowances and so on. So, again, just to repeat, it’s 1% overall, just be clear about that, it’s 1% overall. You may claim that there’s some overpayments, like there’s overpayments of the tax system, or underpayments, but it’s only 1% overall that is actually fraud.”