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Decision to cut welfare payments after recipients' holidays abroad criticised as 'unfair and discriminatory'

Over 140 people have had their welfare payments stopped after travelling abroad – but others receiving State benefits aren’t affected.

Image: Sam Boal via PA Images

Updated Jul 27th 2020, 1:20 PM

THE GOVERNMENT HAS been criticised for stopping people’s €350 Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment and other social welfare payments if recipients have travelled abroad for non-essential purposes.

As first reported by The Business Post at the weekend, the Department of Social Protection said that the money “is not paid to people who go on holidays abroad or when they are going through their 14-day quarantine period”.

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.

In addition, 44 other social welfare payments, like jobseeker’s payments and means-assessed payments, have also been stopped for similar reasons.

Rise TD Paul Murphy told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the State benefits of other citizens aren’t being cut if they go abroad, arguing that the rules seem unfairly weighted against those on social welfare payments.

“These people are being targetted and punished,” he said. “The statutory instrument was introduced two weeks ago, it wasn’t announced, people weren’t given any warning about it, they weren’t told it would happen.

People always have been allowed to go on a two-week holiday when on social welfare, they’ve changed the rules now to say that you can only go on holiday in accordance with the guidelines.

While acknowledging that people should not be travelling abroad, Murphy said that the government’s travel advice is just advice – and isn’t explicitly saying “you can’t going on holidays”.

“But on the basis of that advice – which again, I think strongly people should follow – people are being punished,” he said.

Raising the case of the Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher, who attended the Convention Centre in Dublin for the election of his party leader Micheál Martin as Taoiseach after returning from the European Parliament in Brussels, Murphy said:

The question is, why are [social welfare recipients] only allowed to go on holidays in accordance with the guidelines? If you’re a tax exile, the rules are changed to facilitate you. If you’re Billy Kelleher, the Fianna Fáil MEP who broke the quarantine rules, your income isn’t being cut.

“If you’re on tax relief for very high earners, you’re receiving significant benefit from the State, if you travel on non-essential business you’re not being punished. But if you’re on the PUP payment or on social welfare, you’re going to have your income cut.”

“It wasn’t announced anywhere, which also gives lie to the idea that this is about the safety of people in this country avoiding the coronavirus coming here, because they didn’t even announce it in order to warn people not to go.”

Murphy also said that if the government is serious about preventing the spread of Covid-19 in Ireland, it could screen people arriving in Ireland for the virus, instead of checking whether people on social welfare have travelled abroad for non-essential purposes. 

A Dáil motion has been introduced by Murphy calling for the ministerial order to be scrapped (the change was brought in without a Dáil vote).

Liam Herrick of the Irish Council of Civil Liberties said on the same programme that the statutory instrument signed into law on 10 July by Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys “seems to put in place, a very significant discrimination, without an obvious justification”.

“It also raises questions about the lawfulness of this measure. Because if a minister is introducing a statutory measure of this type, she has to prove that it is within the principles of the primary piece of legislation, and there is no primary legislation about the travel advice.

“This is certainly raising questions,” Herrick said, while also asking how the Department obtained and handled these people’s information.

Friendly fire

Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea said that while nobody should disobey the government advice, he asked “why should one category be penalised for it”, and told the Sarah McInerney programme that he will be raising the issue with the Social Protection Minister.

O’Dea 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.”

Gary Gannon, the Social Democrats spokesperson on social protection, criticised the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar for saying the reason for the change was because those who are receiving the payment should be “actively seeking work”.

Gannon criticised this, saying that it wasn’t possible to be temporarily laid off and also seeking work.

In many cases, employees have been temporarily laid off but are hoping to return to their jobs as restrictions are eased and the economy recovers. A case in point would be the thousands of pub and arts workers who can’t resume their jobs until the government says so.

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Sinn Féin’s spokesperson Claire Kerrane said that she was “deeply concerned” about the checks at airports to discern whether people who had travelled abroad were on the Covid-19 PUP.

“It suggests misguided and warped priorities from this Government that they should focus on penalising those who are the worst off financially,” she said.

The government has consistently failed to put in place a proper test and trace system at airports to control the virus; such as testing, temperature checks and proper enforcement of quarantine. 

“We are now in a ludicrous position whereby some of the only checks taking place at airports are about social welfare. This is misguided and unfair.”

Around 345,600 people in Ireland are on the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment, as of 13 July

Today, the Department of Social Protection issued the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment to 286,900 people, representing a 52% drop on the 598,000 paid at its peak on 5 May.

The rate is worth €350, but from 17 September it will be lowered to €300 for those who had earned over €300 per week prior to the pandemic, and to €250 to those who had earned between €200-300 prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

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