Data Protection Commissioner queries source of details used to block benefit payments

Data Protection Commissioner queries source of details used to block benefit payments
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photo: Sam Boal/

The Data Protection Commissioner has asked the Department of Social Protection to explain how exactly it is getting data it uses to block benefit payments.

Helen Dixon has asked welfare chiefs for more details of their operations at Dublin Airport since it emerged that passengers' details are being accessed by benefits inspectors.

They have been operating there since criteria for getting the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) were changed.

As a result of the changed criteria — that recipients have to be actively seeking work — PUP recipients lose payments if they go abroad.

It emerged on Sunday that 104 PUP cases have been stopped as a result of airport checks since July 7. In addition, 44 other social welfare payments (jobseekers' payments, means assessed payments) have also been closed.

The rules changed on July 10, when Social Protection Minister Heather Humphrys signed a Statutory Instrument which amended the Social Welfare (Consolidated Claims, Payments and Control) Regulations 2007. This states that jobseekers' benefit will only continue to be payable where the claimant is on holidays “in accordance with the General Covid-19 Travel Advisory in operation”.

And as the current advisory is “avoid non-essential travel until further notice”, claimants can’t travel and claim at the moment. 

When asked about where it gets its information, the Department of Social Protection said: 

In relation to airport inspections, control reviews take place across the range of schemes operated by the Department every day and can take a variety of forms. It’s part of its everyday work.

“These include desk-based assessments of customer claims, interviews with customers by trained investigators, audits of employers' PRSI records, specialist investigations and joint enquiries and operations with other agencies such as Revenue and the Gardai. They also include multi-agency checkpoints and checks at airports.”

However, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has questioned the legality of the Covid-19 payment checks at airports. Executive director, Liam Herrick, is in no doubt that they are discriminatory and have no real justification 

As he told RTÉ: “We are talking of people being cut off because they have gone on holidays even though it is not unlawful to go on holidays.”

Graham Doyle, a deputy Data Protection Commissioner, said: “We have contacted the Department of Social Protection and are waiting for their response.”

It is believed a statement will be issued tomorrow.

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