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Data watchdog has 'serious doubts' over whether social welfare inspectors acted lawfully at airports

The Data Protection Commission is seeking further clarity from the department over the actions of social welfare inspectors at airports.

Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

THE DATA PROTECTION Commission (DPC) has said it has “serious doubts” over whether social welfare inspectors acted lawfully in gathering information related to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and other welfare payments at airports. 

In a statement today, deputy commissioner Graham Doyle said that the DPC “cannot see” how the practice of collecting information from those boarding a flight – such as their name, address and PPS number – simply because they are travelling to a certain destination conforms to the powers of inspectors under the relevant legislation.

The intervention from the State data watchdog comes amid sustained criticism of the government in recent days after it emerged that there were 104 cases since 7 July where the PUP was stopped after people in receipt of the payment were found to have travelled abroad for non-essential reasons.

Critics – which included some backbench government TDs – said the move to strip the PUP from people who travelled abroad was penalising one cohort of people for not heeding the travel advice.

Others argued that the rules appeared unfairly weighted against those on social welfare payments, as the State benefits of other citizens aren’t being cut if they go abroad.

In a statement earlier this week, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) said 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 department also claimed that 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”.

Nevertheless, the government performed a u-turn yesterday as Minister Heather Humphreys announced that people on the PUP or Jobseeker’s assistance can travel to countries on the Green List without losing their payments.

The department later identified 85 cases where people had their Pandemic Unemployment Payment stopped (PUP) but may be entitled to it. 

In the statement from the DPC today, it raised concerns about the practice of social welfare inspectors collecting information from passengers in airports and said will follow up the matter with the department.

Its deputy commissioner Graham Doyle said: “The DEASP has confirmed to the DPC that, in respect of certain flights over the last number of months, all customers boarding the flight were, and continue to be, asked for their details, i.e. name, address and PPSN.

The DPC cannot see how this practice of collecting information from all passengers simply on the basis they are travelling to a certain destination conforms with the powers of inspectors under the 2005 Act to act and question (and therefore collect data from) a passenger where they have reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention.
On that basis, the DPC has serious doubts about the lawfulness of the collection and processing of personal data in this context and is now following the matter up with the DEASP as this practice continues today.

Doyle said the DPC had received queries from a number of individuals seeking clarity on whether the department was sourcing information on passengers from other sources.

These queries were aimed at clarifying if such information from other sources was being used to target welfare recipients and cancel their payment without any interaction with a welfare inspector at a port or airport.

The department said it did not receive or process any personal data in considering if there was reasonable grounds to question a passenger.

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Doyle said: “The DPC is further reverting to the DEASP with a view to confirming if the Department received information that would lead to cancellation of a payment in the absence of direct contact with the individual passenger himself/herself without questioning a passenger, as in circumstances where the answer received from the DEASP appears to leave room for such an eventuality.”

Finally, he said that there appeared to be a lack of clarity about the rules around social welfare schemes and travelling abroad during the restrictions imposed during the pandemic. 

In a statement this afternoon, the Free Legal Advice Centre (Flac) said the DPC’s assessment only deepens its own concerns over the activity of the department. 

Flac said late Tuesday that there was no legal basis for the government to remove the PUP for those who holiday abroad.

Its chief executive Eilis Barry said today: “What has emerged today, on foot of the DPC statement, makes evident that the Department operated under the assumption that all recipients of social welfare were prohibited from travel abroad, which our analysis shows was simply not correct.

“In turn this led to a blanket policy of questioning at the airport. The primary legislation underpinning social welfare payments and eligibility for the Covid-19 PUP payment, and social welfare investigations seem to have simply been ignored.”

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Sean Murray

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