Councils criticised in their hunt for cheats

Complaint made after woman was tricked into attending meeting where she was accused of taking benefits she was not entitled to

The parliamentary ombudsman has spoken out against the treatment of residents by councils on the hunt for social welfare fraudsters.

 “I have decided to go public with my view, because the case could affect the outcome of cases other than the one being discussed,”  the ombudsman, Jørgen Steen Sørensen, told Politiken.

Sørensen was referring to the case of a woman who received a range of welfare handouts by declaring that she was a single mother. The council then received an anonymous tip-off that she actually had a boyfriend and called her into a meeting to discuss “the social benefits you received and have applied for”.

It was only when she arrived that the council told her it suspected her of social fraud and that she would have to repay the social welfare benefits that she was not entitled to.

Sørensen told Politiken the council should have told the woman she was under suspicion of a punishable offence before it called her into the meeting, and then at the meeting told her she had the right not to say anything.

Sørensen also criticised the council for not allowing the woman to give her side of the story before the meeting and giving the anonymous tip-off too much weight in their investigation.

The ombudsman’s statement was greeted positively by organisations concerned by the increasingly aggressive tactics being used by councils to expose social welfare fraud, including the legal aid centre Århus Retshjælp.

“We have had cases where people have been asked about their sex lives or have been told by the council’s case workers that they were keeping an eye on them,” Århus Retshjælp’s manager, Katharina Jespersen, told Politiken. “It is an abuse of power, and people often don’t complain.”

But the chairman of the association of Danish councils, Kommunernes Landsforening, Erik Nielsen (Socialdemokrat), argued that councils have a duty to uncover social welfare fraud.

“There are different points of view about how far you can go,” Nielsen told TV2 News. “I don’t think we can hide in people’s bushes, but I don’t think it’s acceptable that residents are taking what they don’t deserve.”

Last June it was revealed that councils were using information taken from Facebook as evidence of social welfare fraud.

One of the cases involved a manual labourer from Kolding who had his sick pay withdrawn after he posted photos on Facebook showing he was working when he said he was ill.

And last year in March, Information newspaper revealed that councils were setting up fake Facebook profiles to catch social welfare fraudsters.

While councils continue to use the fake profiles, the tax authority, Skat, was told by the former tax minister, Troels Lund Poulsen (Venstre), in January 2011 that the practice was illegal and that they would have to stop.

According to a study by KMD Analyse released last December, 3.2 percent of Danes admitted to taking social welfare they were not entitled to, amounting to a cost of between seven and 12 billion kroner a year. In 2010, Danish councils were only able to stop a small fraction of this, about 350 million kroner, landing in the hands of social welfare cheats.