Let me return to the report published in Tuesday’s Irish Times, titled ‘Reports of welfare fraud up 2,500% since 2008‘, by Carl O’Brien. ‘New figures show a dramatic increase in anonymous tip-offs over suspected social welfare fraud’, began the report, which also claimed the ‘increase is welcome news’ for Joan Burton, the Minister for Social Protection.
The report was published together with a Harry McGee interview with Joan Burton -in which she claimed she wanted to make Ireland’s social welfare system more like Sweden’s- and an analysis by Carl O’Brien of the ‘soaring number of anonymous tip-offs’ that claimed ‘the population is happy to embrace a new culture of grassing on their neighbours’.
Moreover, O’Brien’s analysis, headlined ‘Crisis has cut qualms about informing on fraudsters’, claimed that ‘the number of anonymous tip-offs this year had reached 21,000 by November and may end up exceeding last year’s record of 28,000.’
Since this is a news report, you would expect the 2500% increase to reflect current data. However, this is not the case.
Compared to 2008, the precise increase based on Department Figures for 2012 is 2584%, which is in fact closer to 2600% than 2500%.
But what is the picture for 2013? For a report published on the very last day of 2013, one would expect the 2500% to account for the trend into 2013.
The problem is, we don’t have the complete set of data – only 11 months worth.
The Irish Times reports that up to November, total anonymous reports for social welfare fraud stood at 21,000.
Based on this, we should be able to compare 2013 to previous years, in terms of monthly averages, as below:
What we see is that the monthly average for 2013, for January through November, is significantly lower than 2012. Still a great deal higher than 2008, of course.
But the 2500% increase in the Irish Times headline, and the 21,000 reports made from January through November 2013 cited in the body of the text, are used as evidence to support the claim in the report of the ‘extent of the cultural shift’ over recent years. However, if the monthly average of reports has gone down since 2012, that means that the ‘extent of the cultural shift’ has diminished since 2012.
What is the % increase based on monthly averages, not yearly figures?
As we can see from the graph below, the % increase against 2008 figures for 2013 is not, as the report published on 31st December 2013 might suggest, 2500%, but rather 2094%, which is of course still a lot -assuming you think these figures are indicative of anything useful.
However, the drama suggested in the report – ‘new figures show a dramatic increase in anonymous tip-offs’ suddenly doesn’t appear all that dramatic.
In fact, the new figures suggest a drop off in anonymous tip-offs. To illustrate in terms of the annual rate of growth in tip-offs:
It’s only if you treat 2012 figures as new -and they’ve been available at least since the 4th December 2013, when they were the subject of a parliamentary question that cited the 2013 figures to the end of October- that the drama is maintained.
Now obviously there is a caveat here. It may be that December is a very busy month on the whole for snitches. People may become increasingly resentful in the run-up to Christmas, and there may be a Christmas rush on anonymous reporting. Carl O’Brien claims in his analysis that the number of anonymous tip-offs ‘may end up exceeding last year’s record’.
Is this possible? The only month-by-month breakdown I’ve been able to find is for 2010. As you can see, there is no evidence of any Christmas spike for that year. It was November that spawned the monster.
But in order for the 2013 figures to reflect anything other than a drop off in welfare snitching, there would have to be 7,000 anonymous reports of welfare fraud in December, or, to put it another way, a 268% increase on the monthly average for 2013. Carl O’Brien suggests this ‘may’ happen, though provides no evidence to support the claim, and there is no evidence in the public domain to suggest how it might happen. On these terms, I may make a surprise appearance in the Manchester United squad for the FA cup tie against Swansea this weekend.
However, the Irish Times treats the ‘increase’ not only as ‘welcome news to Joan Burton’ -in fact the 2012 increase is not news to Joan Burton; she herself reported the figures in an Oireachtas written answer on 4th December 2013 when she reported on figures to the end of October 2013 (19,301) as well, and it’s hard to imagine she hadn’t been aware of it well before that- but as a matter of current -not historical- fact.
Another interesting aspect to the report is that the vast majority of reports did not lead to welfare payments being stopped or reduced. This is not the emphasis given to the reporting, however. Therefore contrary to the claim in the analysis feature about fewer qualms regarding reporting on fraudsters, what the anonymous reports reveal is that there are fewer qualms regarding snitching on innocent and entirely legitimate recipients of social welfare payments. This is a trend that the Irish Times seems happy to celebrate -to the point of careless exaggeration- in its reporting, thereby acting as a willing foil to a Minister in a right-wing government who seeks to give the demonisation of poor people a social democratic gloss.
Who are the real fraudsters here?