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Heather Humphreys: 'If you're permanently unemployed, then you should be looking for work'

The decision to cut welfare payments after recipients’ holidays abroad has been criticised by TDs as unfair, misguided and discriminatory.

Image: Sam Boal

SOCIAL PROTECTION MINISTER Heather Humphreys has defended the government’s decision to cease social welfare payments for those who have travelled abroad for non-essential purposes. 

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.

This has been labelled as “unfair”, “misguided”, and discriminatory by TDs, who argued that only one cohort of the Irish public are being punished for not obeying an advisory; the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has also suggested the ministerial order by which it was implemented has no legal basis.

“The public travel advice is to not travel abroad, and that applies to everyone,” Humphreys said on RTÉ’s News at One.

“So for example we have 340,000 public servants in the country, and if any one of those chose to travel abroad, they would not be paid for the two-week quarantine when they return,” she said, adding that private companies had the same policy for any of their workers who travel abroad.

The Minister said that under normal circumstances, a person receiving social welfare can travel abroad, but added “the point is we’re not in normal circumstances… we have temporarily suspended the flexibility” of the Covid-19 unemployment payment, she said. 

In response to a change over the weekend on the Gov.ie site, which now says that in order to be eligible for the Covid unemployment payment, the person must be “genuinely seeking work”, Humphreys said:

“For some whose industry hasn’t opened back up again – obviously if you work in a pub, you’re looking to get your job back there again – for others, they should be looking for work.”

But the point is if you’re on the unemployment benefit at this point in time, and if you don’t have a job to go to, then you should be actively looking for other work.
In the case of some sectors for example if you work in a pub, we’re hoping that you will be able to go back to your job, so you don’t have to be looking for work in that situation.
But if you find that you’re going to be permanently unemployed because your job isn’t there, then you should be looking for work. 

Humphreys said: “We are at a crucial stage in dealing with this virus and as we look across the world we see other countries reintroducing restrictions.

The Irish people have suffered so much and no one wants us to go back. In relation to travelling abroad the public health advice is very clear – do not travel abroad except for essential reasons. 

Humphreys said that she wanted to be “very clear” on the topic that if someone on a social welfare payment has travelled abroad for essential reasons, then “you will continue to get your payment”.

Checks at the airport

Musician Ciarán Cooney, who was receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, told Liveline that he was one of the people who had their payment cut after visiting his girlfriend after not having seen her for 15 weeks. 

He said that two plain clothes members of An Garda Síochána approached him at the airport. Cooney said that they 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. 

“If I knew my payment was in jeopardy [because of the flight...] I probably would have reassessed the situation and not went,” he said.

He said on the Department of Social Protection later notified him that his payment would be stopped because of a flight he took on 7 May, and that the Department knew the details of his flight – the time he flew, the airline, and the fight number. 

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It took six weeks for his payment to be reinstated, and he is also six weeks in arrears. They did not ask when he returned, and he had to get help from his local TDs Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty and Independent Carol Nolan to get his payment reinstated. 

In response to the anger and queries arising from this issue, including concerns about how the private data of passengers is being handled, Dublin Airport said

For the avoidance of doubt, we can confirm that we are not sharing passenger data with any third party agencies.

“In fact, we have no access to such passenger data. We cannot comment on the actions of any third party agencies.”

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