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'There is no agenda here': Taoiseach open to a review of PUP cases that were cut off due to travel

A number of concerns about how welfare payments were cut if citizens travelled abroad have been raised.

Image: Sasko Lazarov

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said genuine cases where people have had their Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) cut off unfairly should be reviewed. 

Martin also confirmed that more than 2,000 PUP claims have been closed as a result of checks carried out at Dublin Airport since March.

The Taoiseach said he understands the majority of closures relate to people who no longer live in Ireland.

His comments come after a number of concerns and queries about how welfare payments were cut if citizens travelled abroad.

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. 

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

RTÉ’s Liveline has covered the matter over two days this week, hearing from callers such as musician Ciarán Cooney, who was receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, and had his Covid PUP cut after visiting his girlfriend in Scotland.

During Leaders’ Questions today, Micheál Martin said 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”.

Martin told the Dáil that he would like the cases reviewed if there have been cases where people have had the PUP unfairly cut off.

He also confirmed that the change in relation to those on welfare not being permitted to take two weeks holidays didn’t come before government.

“There is no agenda here to penalise any one sector,” he said, replying to Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald who said one cohort of society is being unfairly treated.

“The vast majority of these cases are people who were leaving the country, they were not holidaymakers and were leaving the country on a permanent basis.”

Martin said the Government advice remains – avoid non-essential travel abroad. He said this advice applies to everyone – whether they are on the PUP or not.

McDonald has said social welfare officials are “singling out” people on pandemic unemployment payments going through airports.

“You want to make an example of people who lost their job,” McDonald told the Dail.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin accused Ms McDonald of trying to claim the Government is out to get people.

“The Government is keeping this payment going until March, albeit at different levels. The Government have been anxious to help people who are unemployed as a result of the pandemic,” he said.

McDonald said people on PUP hope to return to work and are out of work due to the pandemic. These people are now being singled out as there is no penalty for other citizens should they choose to travel to one of the green list countries, she pointed out. 

While she said she would prefer for people to remain at home, some people may need to travel, and if they are on the PUP they will face a “serious sanction” for doing so.

She said the situation cannot continue, stating that every person should be treated equally, and highlighted that the mantra that ‘we are all in this together’ is not not the case.

She said many people are out of their jobs “because the government shut down the economy”. McDonald said people on PUP should be treated respectfully and equally, which is not currently the case, she added.

Rise TD Paul Murphy says there were no sanctions placed on Fianna Fáil MEP when he travelled and broke the travel guidelines.  

Martin reiterated that this only is in respect of a handful of people, and reiterated that he has no issue with cases being reviewed if people believe they have been treated unfairly.

“This has to be kept in perspective,” he said.

A number of TDs called for a debate on the matter, which resulted in the Order of Business not being agreed.

A vote on the Order of Business, and whether to annul a ministerial order that effectively bans people from receiving the PUP payment while traveling abroad, was defeated. 

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have teamed together and decided not to end the discriminatory action, said McDonald. She said this is a “disgraceful action”.

Earlier, during a sitting of the Dáil’s Covid-19 Committee this morning, a Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) executive has said he is not aware of social welfare inspectors questioning passengers at Dublin Airport.  

Ray Gray, Chief Financial Officer for DAA, said:

“Dublin Airport and Cork Airport are not involved in the collection of any information in relation to peoples PPS numbers or anything else otherwise in relation to the pandemic unemployment payment.

“I can’t help with that information, which may well be obtained at the airport by other authorities.”

He added: 

“Dublin airport or Cork airport do not collect passenger data in the form of personal information and therefore we’re not involved in the collection or sharing of any such information.

“We obviously follow GDPR prinicples very, very closely and use airport information for airport purposes only.”

Mary Considine, CEO of the Shannon Group said: ”I can confirm that we do not collect any personal data from customers and we don’t pass any data on. We’re not aware of data being collected in Shannon but if it were to be done, it would be done by one of the state bodies.”

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Travel advice

Later today, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was asked again about the government’s travel advice. 

He said the government message is clear – that people are being asked to holiday at home this year.

Coveney said the government is “not encouraging, supporting or funding people to go on holidays abroad”.

He defended the Green List publication stating that while public health advice and the government’s message is to holiday at home, his department also has an obligation to provide accurate information to people that do choose to travel, for whatever reason.

If people are travelling, Coveney said his department “has an obligation” to give information to people based on risk and data.

Coveney said it is important to note that it is NPHET’s role is to advise government, but it is the government’s role to take decisions.

“That is what has been done in this instance,” said Coveney.

He denied the Green list was published due to lobbying by airlines.

“If we were doing Ryanair’s bidding I don’t think they would be threatening to take us to court,” he said.

In addition to the travel controversy relating to those on the PUP, a bill is due to pass through the Dáil this evening that will state that people in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment must be “genuinely seeking” employment.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach told TheJournal.ie that those in receipt should seek alternative work while on welfare.

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