I met up with a friend of mine the other night for a drink. This guy, who I hadn't seen for quite a while, works in a local social welfare office.
I would have had some guess at the possible issues he and his colleagues faced but in reality, I had no clue.
Hearing of my friend's experiences first hand shocked me; I don't shock easily.
He told me of social welfare inspectors who've been simply too frightened and intimidated to carry out their inspections on people who they believe are defrauding the system.
People who are well known to the Gardai, who have unaccounted for assets such as new cars, televisions, technological gadgetry, the latest fashionable clothing etc, yet claim to have no income. He told me of one inspector who visited a house that was laiden down with what could only be described as "stock" from some shop or supermarkert - there were literally crates, boxes and even a pallate of goods which the welfare recipient explained, were "bought in for the Christmas!" Stolen goods? Perhaps, but even if they were bought, where did the money come from?
It's common for inspectors to be threatened and intimidated and, as they often live in and around the same vicinity as the people they're inspecting, their identities and sometimes addresses are well known. As a result, some are too frightened to upset certain difficult clients - it's simply not worth it.
Staff at the public office are now required to interview some welfare recipients to assess their "job seeking" progress. However, some have never worked, as their records clearly show, and when they are (as is now practice) requested to provide evidence of actual job seeking or to attend edcational courses, all manner of abuse is let fly at staff. Taking verbal abuse is now seen as being simply part of the job.
Another area he told me about was the inspection of lone parents, which he said, takes up an inordinate amount of time and resources for the Department.
Inspectors carry out surveilance of homes, morning, noon and night to ensure that the man who claims to be, "just visiting my kid" isn't actually living at the address. Inspectors will call to homes at unexpected times, make enquiries with neighbours, jot down car registration numbers and even check facebook accounts to establish who is living with who.
Having "lone parent" status in social welfare terms can be quite lucrative but it would appear that this cat and mouse game is costing the Department as much as it is saving.
Finally, he told me of the office visits for monthly sign-ons. Some welfare recipients refuse to come to the signing office (public office) on the requested day as they fear running into people with whom they are "feuding".
My friend told that there have been mass brawls in other offices, thankfully not his, and so, in the interests of public and staff safety the Department allow special appointments to be made for signing for anyone who's involved in a feud. That made me laugh out loud - but he assured me it was no joke.
By the end of our chat I (usually a Liberal Leftie) felt I had turned Right.
I was angered by the stories of intimidation and abuse that the ordinary public servants had to endure and I was also really annoyed by the fraudsters who seem to be free to intimidate their way to getting whatever they want.
We've all heard about the bankers, developers and politicians who've broken, escaped from and even mocked the law. Well, there is another group who have no fear of the law either, who scam our money right from under our noses. Sure, the scale is smaller but the arrogance, greed and indifference to others is the same among this cohort as it is among the corrupt bankers, developers and politicians.
It seems to be us suckers in the middle who have most reason to fear the law, or indeed to even take it seriously.
I'm not usually one for calling for tougher law enforcement and tougher laws as, like all liberals, I value our collective freedoms and I believe that most people do not need tougher laws or law enforcement to ensure that they behave in a respectful and civil manner.
However, unfortunately, there are some who seem to need more stick and less carrot - there simply is no other way.
PS: I'm not calling for reduced welfare rates; times are tough for everyone and the cost of living in this country is still high. I'm simply calling for thugs to be dealt with accordingly and not to be allowed to bully civil society.