Italy wages war on its million-strong invalid army: Fraud worst in South, where politicians bought votes with false benefits and other favours

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The Independent Online
THE national record goes to a village with the charming name of Militello Rosmarino near the north coast of Sicily. Out of an adult population of 1,200 no less than 500 are officially invalids.

A visitor to Militello Rosmarino would not notice any unusual number of people with crutches, white sticks or wheelchairs on the streets, but that is just the point. For the people of Militello Rosmarino seem to be the best of all at a vast national fiddle that the government is trying to stop: falsely getting themselves invalid benefits.

The centre-forward on the local football team, it is said, is a certified cripple. A local landowner with a passion for driving hot sports cars is officially blind.

One in four of its inhabitants is supposed to be in such a bad way that they get grants of L700,000- L900,000 ( pounds 291- pounds 375) a month to pay for a carer, on top of their benefits of around L350,000 a month.

So easy is it to become an invalid in Militello Rosmarino that people from elsewhere have formally taken up residence there. An unconscionable number of people are officially domiciled in the home of the mayor, the doctor and the head of the local health service. When the carabinieri asked the mayor, Santi Russo, why so many people shared his address he replied without batting an eyelid 'I like company'.

The government has calculated that the country's 1.14 million official invalids (and these do not include disabled war veterans and victims of accidents at work) cost the taxpayer L15.7 trillion a year and many of them are phoney. One civil servant estimated on television that these could be as many as 60 per cent of the total.

The suspicion is reinforced by a regional breakdown of the figures. In the relatively poor regions of Abruzzo and Umbria more than 3.6 per cent of the population are invalids, in Sicily and Calabria the figure is more than 2.6 per cent while in northerly, industrious Piedmont and Lombardy the percentages are 1.3 and 1.4 respectively.

The main culprits are the politicians in the centre and the south who for years have used their power to get false benefits and other favours for constituents in exchange for votes. It is no accident that 80-90 per cent of Militello Rosmarino votes Christian Democrat.

Often these benefits help to alleviate genuine poverty in the more backward south. But it is also precisely the kind of southern 'parasitism' that has been swelling the Northern League's vote and prompting its campaign for a federal state, with different laws and finances in the North and the South.

Now the party is over. The government has ordered blanket checks on the country's invalids. And, unless a law currently going through parliament is changed, the fiddlers will have to pay back all their ill-gotten benefits for the past 10 years. While invalids' associations branded the move as 'ignoble', 'vile' and 'irresponsible', the Labour Minister, Gino Giugni, gave assurances that they would not force people to pay who could not.

The real reason for the move, he said, was that no less than 2 million more people have applications for invalid benefits pending. It was a deterrent. 'We had to do something to stop this spreading,' he said.

FOUR hand grenades and about 50 bullets were found last night a few yards from the entrance to the Interior Ministry in Rome.

'It is clearly an attempt at intimidation,' said the police chief, Vincenzo Parisi. The threat appeared to be linked to investigations into alleged embezzlement and other murky doings by the discredited secret services, or to the crackdown on the Mafia. The cache was found after a telephone tip-off.