Some stories are too good for facts

Michael Taft08/12/2009

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.

Posted in: PoliticsWelfare

Tagged with: mediasocial welfare

Michael Taft     @notesonthefront


Michael Taft is an economic analyst and trade unionist. He is author of the Notes of the Front blog and a member of the TASC Economists’ Network.



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