The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has questioned the legality of controversial checks being carried out at airports to identify travellers in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment.
The organisation’s executive director, Liam Herrick, claimed the checks on passengers to establish if they were in receipt of the PUP weekly payment of up to €350 were discriminatory without any real justification being offered by the Government for their use.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has confirmed that it has cut off the PUP payment of more than 100 people who had travelled abroad since July 7 as a result of checks carried out at airports.
The ICCL said it had received reports since the start of July of passengers at airports being asked for the PPS numbers.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Herrick said it seemed that a statutory instrument signed into law by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Heather Humphreys, on July 10 meant that travel advice issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs effectively had a legal impact on one section of society.
“It’s just advice for one section of the population but it actually has the force of law for another section – those that are dependent on social welfare payments,” Mr Herrick said.
He added: “It has changed the definition of what is an allowable holiday.” Mr Herrick said statutory instruments should only be introduced where they operated within the principles of primary legislation.
“There is no primary legislation about the travel advice,” he observed.
Mr Herrick said comments made by the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics at the weekend about the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection getting information from the airports raised questions about where the information came from and how it was lawfully obtained and shared.
Speaking on #rtetwip Tánaiste @LeoVaradkar says "the Department of Social Protection gets information from the airports and if somebody is not genuinely seeking work or is not living in the country anymore their welfare payments can be stopped". #rtenews pic.twitter.com/TgkVo6kdSx— The Week in Politics (@rtetwip) July 26, 2020
He said the ICCL supported efforts to tackle social welfare fraud but that was not what was at issue with the checks at airports.
“We are talking of people being cut off because they have gone on holidays even though it is not unlawful to go on holidays,” Mr Herrick said.
He claimed there was no way members of the public could have reasonably known the rules had changed Mr Herrick said the State had made a policy decision not to restrict people travelling in and out of Ireland but now seemed to have introduced a restriction on people dependent on social welfare.
He pointed out that the PUP had been introduced to maintain a connection between someone temporarily laid off work and their employer.
“They are not required to be seeking work on an ongoing basis,” said Mr Herrick.
He added: “Something that is not law is being elevated to the level of law but only for one section of the population. That gives rise to profound questions about freedom of movement and discrimination.” The ICCL has called on the Government to clarify if the Cabinet had made a decision to introduce the checks on passengers at aiports and whether it had received advice from the Attorney General on the measure.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Sarah McInerney, Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea also criticised the measure and said it made very little difference in practice as the overwhelming majority of people travelling abroad could afford to do so.
“I don’t think it’s right or proper that one category of people who don’t take the [Government’s travel] advice, which is well grounded, on board should be singled out for punishment,” said Mr O’Dea.
On the same programme, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Louise O’Reilly, said there was no suggestion people on the PUP were “living it up”.
Ms O’Reilly said the Government was responsible for the confusion over travel advice after providing “a lot of mixed messages”.
“They should not cut off a person’s only source of income because they have left the country. That is not right,” the Dublin Fingal TD said.