Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Some stories are too good for facts

Michael Taft: It’s good the administrators of this blog brought Peter Connell’s post back up to the top. Last night, Prime Time Investigates examined social welfare fraud (and errors and over-payments, which they never differentiated). The programme included the now-famous story of Ballyconnell, Co. Cavan. According to PTI, there were 700 people living in that border town at the time of the 2006 census, but now 1,300 people are signing on in the local social welfare office. PTI took this as proof of ‘rampant welfare tourism’. What else could explain this strange figure?

Well, there’s a very simple explanation which Peter identified. The social welfare office caters for more than just those living in Ballyconnell. According to the Social Affairs website, the Ballyconnell office caters for the town and a significant area of Cavan: Bawnboy, Carrigallen, Belturbet, Killeshandra, Redhills, Swanlinbar, and Corlough. In fact, Ballyconnell is one of only two social welfare offices serving the entire county of Cavan – the other being situated in Cavan town. Maybe that could explain it.

Of course, a little bit of research would have discovered this explanation. If you google "Ballyconnell" AND "social welfare" AND "fraud", Peter’s article comes up 11th. That should have alerted the researchers to other explanations. But the story was too good to let a little research and a few facts get in the way.

Indeed, the whole treatment of border towns experiencing disproportionate increases in the Live Register was highly selective and distortive. PTI examined the Live Register increase from July 2008 to July 2009. Nationally, the average was 83 percent. PTI cited Ardee, with a 100 percent increase, as an example of social welfare fraud – with potentially ‘a lot’ of people coming down from Northern Ireland to sign on illegally. 100 percent sounds pretty conclusive. Could welfare tourism account for this? Possibly. But, then, why was the rise in the much closer-to-the-border Dundalk only 72 percent? Are Northern Irish welfare cheats picky about the town they sign on in?

Again, PTI cited Ballybofey with an 85 percent increase (about the national average, by the way) and Ballyshannon with 91 percent as more towns with welfare cheat problems. Interestingly, they omitted other Donegal towns near the Northern border such as Buncrana and Letterkenny – the latter having a rise of only 67 percent.

They also cited Carrick-on-Shannon, a place I’m familiar with. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the place could easily point out to you the reason why the local social welfare office experienced a 90 percent increase in signing on: the half-finished and ghost estates around the area. The town and surrounding area experienced the worst of the collapse of the property market, with hundreds of construction workers laid off. Interestingly, Manorhamilton, which is closer to the border, experienced a rise lower than the national average. That town, however, was not mentioned by PTI.

Maybe there is a horde flooding across the border to sign on illegally. But the rise in all the Border counties was less than the national average – 78 percent as opposed to a national 83 percent. Again, this fact didn’t emerge in the PTI story.

Let’s return to Ardee’s 100 percent increase. What could explain it? Maybe the same factors that explain Edenderry, Loughrea, Ballinrobe, Westport, Dun Laoire, Balbriggan, Maynooth, Kells, Navan, Trim, Bray, Kilmallock, Newcastle West, Nenagh, Thomastown, Cahir, Cashel, Bantry, Carrigaline, Cobh, Macroom, Midleton, Newmarket, Skibbereen, Kenmare, Killarney, and Kilorglin. All these places experienced a percentage rise in the Live Register in excess of Ardee – more than 100 percent. Yes, that would be an interesting Prime Time Investigates – why is unemployment rising so high and what can we do to, first, to halt it, and then reverse it as quickly as possible?

Are there people crossing the border to sign on illegally in the Republic? Yes. In fact, it would be a shock it if weren’t the case. How many? PTI could have done a bit of work and tried to describe the problem as accurately as possible. That is always the first step in resolving a problem. But rather than try to be accurate, they chose to be exploitative. We are, therefore, left no wiser.

I’ll leave you with one more stat attack: PTI’s selectivity can be seen in the period they chose to highlight. They used the July 08 to July 09 figures. However, the latest Live Register Additional Tables were published over a month ago – featuring the October to October figures. This up-to-date information was readily available to the PTI team. The only problem was that it wouldn’t have supported ‘the story’ of wide scale social welfare fraud.

The national average at year-to-end October was 65 percent, while the percentages for the border towns they cited were:

Ballybofey: 56 percent
Ballyshannon: 71 percent
Carrick-on-Shannon: 62 percent
Carrickmacross: 51 percent
Ardee: 77 percent

This doesn’t tell quite the same story, though. And above all else, we must maintain the story even if it means we miss the opportunity to describe a situation accurately.


McG said...

Yeah you're right. Explain away all the numbers, stick your head in the sand. There's no problem with social welfare.

Michael Taft said...

McG - as I said, there's a fraud problem. However, if we don't define the problem accurately, we won't be able to define the solution properly. Do you have any particular issue with what I wrote? Or do you think that your comment suffices for analysis.

Scribhneoir said...

Who is sticking their heads in the sand? Perhaps the PTI team who did not do a real research job before the program aired? Difficult and all as it may be to understand for someone not acquainted with rural living - social welfare offices in small towns deal with people from a very large area, not just the small town - this is pretty basic research.
What is difficult to understand is why such basic information was not forthcoming in the PTI program.
Of course I could be cynical and suggest that there may be a hidden agenda in not portraying the real picture and thus encouraging people to readily accept harsh social welfare cuts in the budget - after all, no one really needs social welfare, do they? Sure aren't all social welfare recipients just social welfare tourists?
Perhaps the tourist office could supply Fáilte Ireland umbrellas to all these tourists as they queue outside the social welfare offices in the rain.
Mmmm, queuing in the rain for the dole in 2009 - a nice touch really, a little added 80s nostalgia for the tourists, just like visiting a Quiet Man cottage or Bunratty....

paul sweeney said...

Was this modern public service broadcasting? Is Prime Time doing an investigative progamme on the many tax cheats we have in Ireland tonight, before tomorrows Budget? Am I overly-sensitive, but did it appear to other viewers that there were hints of racial overtones and xenophobia in that progamme?

Mack said...

That seems a convincing explanation, Michael.

I'd like to hear Prime Time's explanation too. Surely they spoke to people in the affected SW offices, who would have given them that explanation?

Yvonne said...

Scriobhneoir, if you're cynical, then I am doubly so. It appears well timed to soften public opinion ahead of the budget.
Paul, I don't think you're oversensitive. This was not a balanced report by any means.
I also thought it was instructive that the DG of DSFA confirmed that calculated savings from fraud investigation, which contribute to inflated headline figures for fraud include projected savings. Did anyone catch for what period ahead?

Anonymous said...

Its another fine example of 'excellent' NOT journalism on this fair Isle. Standards are so...well dropping that it makes a mockery of it all. The adage don't believe anything you read has never been more true.

Joseph said...

Paul Sweeney - you used the words 'Prime Time' and investigative programme in the same sentence. I believe the two are mutually exclusive. Looked more like a bit of FF PR to soften things up before cutting welfare in the budget to me. I expect we will see a bit of 'push polling' over the next day or so too.
On the topic of the budget, I've had a brilliant idea. Let's have a one-off, retrospective capital gains and inheritance tax covering the celtic tiger years. Give some of that wealth back.

emacs said...

. . . and McG devastates Taft's thesis with a brilliantly argued critique (or what passes for such in our high-on-indignation, short-on-reason republic)

An Saoi said...

I have in the past been involved in investigating Social Welfare fraud, not error or over/ underpayments but the real thing, fraud. There is a common factor in almost all SW fraud - an employer happy to break the rules for their own short-term gain.

This may involve paying them cash, through the suppression of sales or by allowing someone to operate under an assumed name or identity. In many cases the employer may provide the false identity for the person.

If you want to tackle SW fraud, it can only be done in tandem with tax fraud. Now the Revenue will have lost over 700 experienced staff this year without any suitable replacements. Those who whine about SW fraud should first ensure that the investigative arms of the State are suitably resourced.

On Thursday & Friday last I had reason to speak to two groups of front-line operational Revenue staff. Their approach to work has changed as they no longer consider that the State cares very much for them, they intend to reciprocate the lack of concern. Do you want them to risk their personal safety to tackle drug smuggling or not?

Proposition Joe said...

Their approach to work has changed as they no longer consider that the State cares very much for them, they intend to reciprocate the lack of concern.

Severe lack of joined-up thinking there.

Less tax revenue means less ... well, no need to draw you a picture.

Anonymous said...

I did cringe when they mentioned the link between cross-border welfare fraud and the 'huge' increases in the live register in border towns. And it does cast a pall over the rest of the program. Surely even the briefest look at the rates of increase in the deep south would have flagged Ballyconnel as a non-issue - move on.

That said there were some very serious issues raised. When you see stories of people who are a) dead and b)making prsi contributions to the same organisation from which they are currently drawing welfare payments - for years - and it's not spotted!! I don't know the ins and out of the dept's IT systems but that has to be so easy to fix.

Also the the DG of the dept did not comes across well at all. She was not exactly dynamic either in demeanour or in the substance of her answers. She basically allowed the interviewer/viewer to draw the conclusion that welfare fraud was running at 10-15%. Mary Hanafin easily rebutted this point the following morning (on Pat Kenny I think). Bottom line 10-15% would be a worst case figure in certain schemes/demographics. I contrasted her performance to that of Timothy Joyce of the OPW http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2009/pc/pod-v-081209-11m54s-todaywithpatkenny.mp3. Now there's is public servant worth his pension!

Finally @An Saoi. Can you please tell those frontliners that it is not there employers job to 'care' for them. You get your wages and you do your job. Sin é. I know it galls public sector people after receiving 3 whacks at their salary in the space of 10 months but just think how many public sector employees have been let go, of that how many let go involuntarily and of those how many got say less than 3wks of service per year. Think reasons-to-be-cheerful!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this link, but unfortunately it seems to be down... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at www.progressive-economy.ie could post it.


progressive-economy@tasc said...

Peter - apologies, but video links are often time-limited. We are trying to track down a mirror, and will post it if successful - Admin

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be down... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at www.progressive-economy.ie could post it.