New plans to name and shame people convicted of welfare fraud, as well as other measures introduced by Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, have been described, in some quarters, as “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.
Well, this morning, on Today with Sean O’Rourke, the Minister’s policy initiative itself, and the advertising campaign that goes along with it, were subjected to a full-on sledge-hammering by a former inspector at that very Department, the Department for Social Protection. Her name is Bernadette Gorman, and she was taking no prisoners.
“I do believe he is on a solo run. And I do believe it’s all about his ego. It’s a very distasteful campaign, and never in the history of the state, while I was in there, has there been a campaign like it. … It’s a war on the poor. It is class warfare, actually. A very Toryite idea.”
According to Bernadette, it is “implicit in the campaign that everybody on social welfare is some kind of cheat, some kind of scum.” “That is your interpretation”, hit back Paddy Smyth, Dublin City Fine Gael Councillor, and another of Sean’s panel.
But Bernadette stood her ground.
“I can speak with authority on this over above the rest of you, if I may say so, because I was on the beat.”
Bernadette Gorman joined the department in 1981, and worked for many years as an inspector, detecting fraud. It would, she said, occur from time to time but, “was always very miniscule”. But apart from its scale, it was the approach to welfare fraud that, she said, was important.
“I want to talk about how I was trained at the Department….. First and foremost, the dignity of the citizen was to the forefront…. Fraud must be dealt with always with discrimination, with discretion, with good judgement and common sense. The fraud I came across was so miniscule, it never required a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
In this respect, Bernadette gave the example of one case of a woman whose husband had been gambling the social welfare money, and she desperately needed a few hours of non-declared income to make up the shortfall. Although technically fraudulent, it was one of those cases that required such sensitivity.
These days, Bernadette says, she does not like the way Department is going.
“Leo Varadkar was clearly on some sort of solo run. But I don’t know what his senior officials were doing allowing it.”
But in relation to the current policy, and government direction, there is a bigger issue, says Bernadette.
“This is a hate campaign. Never, in my life, and I am 30 years associated with that Department, never was there a campaign like it, coming after a savage austerity and what is now very visible wrongdoing in other sectors of society going unchecked…. This is all about his own bid to become leader.”
The level of scrutiny on this area, says Bernadette, is disproportionate considering financial impropriety in other areas. “Overall government policy, in this country, has not observed what we would call the social contract.”
Paddy Smyth, on the other hand, describes this approach as “whataboutery”. The budget of the Department of Social Protection is the Minister’s responsibility and his responsibility only. Other ministers have their responsibilities, but Leo Varadkar, in defending his budget, is simply doing his job.
“It is ironic that Dr Varadkar is being accused of this being politically motivated. He is doing his job. This is a budget that he is responsible for. It is his job to make sure that that is protected.”
Also joining the panel for one of the most robust debates we have heard in recent weeks was Gavin Mendel-Gleason, Workers Party representative for Dublin Northwest. The above clip is just a snippet of a lively discussion that is well worth listening back to. You can do that by clicking here.
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