25 November 2005

Agency ‘intimidates’

Daily Ireland

Jarlath Kearney

Senior government officials in the North last night refused to comment after complaints about the activities of the Social Security Agency’s fraud squad.
Earlier this week, Sinn Féin north Belfast assembly member Kathy Stanton wrote to direct-rule minister David Hanson outlining a range of serious concerns about the agency’s Benefit Investigation Services.
Specifically, Ms Stanton highlighted the agency’s decision to require tape-recorded interviews under policing legislation as “a very, very intimidating approach to vulnerable individuals in society”.
Daily Ireland has obtained a pro forma letter issued by the agency requiring a claimant to attend an interview “under caution”.
“Because there is reason to believe your claim may be fraudulent, it is necessary to conduct the interview under caution,” the letter stated.
“The interview will be tape-recorded and conducted under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, and therefore you may wish to consult a solicitor,” the letter said.
At no stage did the pro forma letter indicate the specific reason for alleging the individual’s benefit claim may be fraudulent.
Rather, it stated that an individual must first agree to be interviewed under caution before they can find out “specific information about the matter”.
Nor does the letter notify individuals that their legal representative would be prohibited from speaking or making representations during the interview.
Last night, the Department for Social Development refused to specify the grounds on which the Police and Criminal Evidence Order was being invoked.
“This smacks more of an interrogation than an interview,” Ms Stanton said.
“In fact, it appears that the SSA fraud section believe they have more powers than the PSNI.
“I have very serious concerns about the human-rights implications associated with this approach and will be urgently seeking expert legal advice.
“It is quite clear that the manner of the approach and the so-called interview is extremely intimidatory, particularly for vulnerable sectors of society such as the elderly or those with mental health problems.
“It could take up to 18 months to go through one of these procedures, at the end of which many people are simply cleared of wrongdoing.
“This strategy of intimidation against those sectors of society least able to defend their rights cannot be justified,” said Ms Stanton.
In her letter to David Hanson, Ms Stanton called for a change in the language used in the letters issued by the fraud squad.
She stated that welfare rights groups “believe, if the terminology were changed, it would prevent a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety”.
A spokesperson for the Department for Social Development said the department was “not in a position” to respond to the questions of Daily Ireland.

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