By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A cheater’s checkpoint pilot scheme in seven counties has caught 118 dole spongers and saved the taxpayer £285,000 in social welfare payments.
The government plans to make the checkpoints a more permanent feature on the roads when the new Social Welfare Bill is passed by the Oireachtas.
"They are very, very useful," said Cyril Havelin, Department of Social Welfare regional management team director.
The new black market crackdown will be a sort of "honesty pit stop" and will involve staff from four departments led by the gardai. It will tackle fraud, road traffic safety breaches, smuggling and road traffic offenses.
The pilot scheme involved 2,000 vehicles being stopped at 10 checkpoints in Louth, Kildare, Meath, Dublin, Wicklow, Monaghan and Cavan.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
"The fact that about 5 percent of those stopped at random were found to be working and claiming the dole surprised us. It was extraordinarily successful. The whole approach is obviously very worthwhile," a Department of Social Welfare spokeswoman said.
She said the checkpoints would be mounted as staff and resources allowed and she dismissed as "scare-mongering" suggestions that anyone carrying on ladder on their vehicle roof would be subjected to harassment.
"The checkpoints will be operated in a firm, fair, friendly way and checks will only be made where there is a reasonable suspicion that a vehicle is being used in the course of employment," the spokeswoman said. "People operating within the law will have nothing to fear."
The department pays out almost £5 billion a year in various schemes. Last year, about £80 million worth of dole money payments were stopped because of fraud and other abuses.
If they are stopped by the new multi-agency checkpoints, it will result in people facing a range of checks to see if they are cheating.
Gardai will be looking for drunk drivers and breaches of the traffic laws such as speeding and driving license, tax and insurance irregularities.
Inspectors from the Environment Department will check tachometers and scrutinize safety aspects of the vehicle.
Customs officer will dip tanks to see if "green" agricultural diesel is being used instead of the commercial "red" diesel and verify if the vehicle itself or any goods being carried have been correctly imported.
Finally, the social welfare inspectors will have laptop computers that can check the identity of the driver and helper and use their PRSI numbers to make sure they are not also claiming the dole.
The new checkpoints are just part of extensive new powers for social welfare inspectors.
Provisions in the new Bill will allow inspectors to remove documents and files from business premises and to require bosses to answer questions about suspected fraud.
The inspectors seconded to the Criminal Assets Bureau will also be given power to prosecute without referring back to the department.