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Department of Social Protection: 'The PUP is not paid to people who leave the country to live elsewhere, or who go on holidays abroad'

The Department said that the vast majority of welfare payments that were ceased were to people who left the country “permanently”.

Image: Shutterstock/Guido Benedetto

THE DEPARTMENT OF Social Protection has released a lengthy statement in response to a number of concerns and queries about how welfare payments were cut if citizens travelled abroad.

In that statement, it clarifies that social protection inspectors have been permitted to carry out checks at airports and ports since 2012, and that the vast majority of welfare payments that were ceased relate to people who left the country “permanently”.

“The PUP [Pandemic Unemployment Payment] is not paid to people who are leaving the country to reside elsewhere or who go on holidays abroad,” the Department said in a statement after TheJournal.ie submitted a number of questions about the decision.

In cases whereby people travel abroad for essential reasons, the Department of Social Protection said it would continue to pay the Covid-19 PUP to these recipients.

The vast majority of PUP cases stopped as a result of the compliance checks relate to individuals leaving the country permanently.

“If a person returns to Ireland, it is open to them to re-apply for the PUP,” it said.

Since 7 July, 104 cases of Pandemic Unemployment Payment have been stopped after people receiving that payment were found to have travelled abroad for non-essential reasons during a screening process at airports.

A further 44 other social welfare payments were stopped for similar reasons.

The decision to cut these payments has been criticised by a number of TDs, including backbencher Willie O’Dea, who said that it “was not right and proper that one category of people who don’t take the government’s advice should be singled out for punishment.”

The crux of the criticism is that the government is penalising one cohort of people for not heeding travel advice, which isn’t a law and is purely advice; and that there wasn’t enough notice given that this change in the social welfare criteria was given.

In response to this, the Department said:

“The eligibility criteria have always been clear that a recipient must be living in the State in order to receive a Pandemic Unemployment Payment and cannot be absent from the State. Neither is the payment paid to individuals during a 14-day quarantine period.”

Questions have also been raised about how the Department of Social Protection acquired the information that people had travelled abroad.

Dublin Airport has said that it has no oversight on flight details; the Department emphasised this again.

The statement continues:

The advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team is to avoid overseas travel. This is in order to protect our citizens as we continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Examples of this would be travelling abroad due to bereavement or to care for a sick family relative.
These rules also currently apply to Jobseeker’s payments as the Department of Social Protection temporarily suspended the normal two week holiday period for jobseekers.

It added that this information was notified to Intreo Centres “at an earlier date”.

“In normal circumstances, there is flexibility under Social Welfare legislation whereby a person in receipt of jobseekers can leave the country for up to two weeks without this affecting their payment, provided they notify their local Social Protection Office in advance.

However we are not living in normal circumstances. Given that the clear public health advice is not to travel abroad except for essential reasons, the Department temporarily suspended this flexibility on 10 July.

Dublin Airport checks

Musician Ciarán Cooney, who was receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, told Liveline that he had his Covid PUP cut after visiting his girlfriend in Scotland.

Cooney said that two “plain clothed Gardaí” looked at his passport and ID for what they said were “immigration purposes”, and was never told that it was related to his social welfare payment. They did not ask for his PPS number. 

He said that the Department of Social Protection knew his flight number, the time he flew, and the airline he flew with.

In response to this, the Department said:

“As part of its normal control work, the Department of Social Protection carries out compliance inspections at ports and airports throughout the course of the year. Since 2012, social welfare inspectors have had legal powers to carry out these checks as part of the ongoing control and compliance work they are engaged in.

The legal basis for these checks is Section 250 (16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by Section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012.

The statement continues:

The Department does not have access to travel data, nor does it have access to travel locator forms from any airport or port.
These compliance checks involve inspectors speaking directly with passengers and any information gathered is only used for the purpose for which it is gathered.

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“It is an offence for a person to obstruct an Inspector when carrying out their duties.”
The clear advice from Government based on official public health advice, is that people should not make non-essential travel overseas, the Department said.

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie, An Garda Síochána said: “This is a Department of Social Protection operation. An Garda Síochána continues to work closely with all Government Departments and Agencies during the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

‘Discriminatory’

In response to the claim that ceasing the payments is a “significant discrimination”, the Department repeated comments made by the Minister Heather Humphreys, that similar rules apply to civil servants and other workers:

The Government is not discriminating against social welfare recipients. Public Sector staff, who are required to undertake quarantine for the 14-day period must take either annual leave or unpaid leave to cover this absence from work. Many private companies are also applying these rules.

“These rules currently apply to people receiving jobseeker’s payments, as well as the PUP.

On the changes to the Gov.ie site made yesterday, which now says that in order to be eligible for the Covid unemployment payment, the person must be “genuinely seeking work”, the Department said that it “updates its website regularly and did so earlier this week”.

“This was in order to provide clarity surrounding the issue of the PUP and should not be perceived as a change in policy,” it said.

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