Taoiseach orders investigation after rule change sees holidaymakers denied unemployment payment

Taoiseach orders investigation after rule change sees holidaymakers denied unemployment payment
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that 'the overall view is that people should seek work even though they are on a pandemic unemployment payment'. Picture: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin

The Government is reeling from fresh public anger and confusion over the rule change which has seen people lose their €350-a-week pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) after went on holidays.

In the latest gaffe to hit the month-old coalition, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he has ordered an investigation into how the Department of Social Protection’s website was changed over the weekend.

Controversy has arisen after it emerged people who flew out of the country on holidays have returned home to find that their payments stopped.

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 PUP were changed.

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

Speaking after Cabinet, Mr Martin said people receiving the PUP should seek work.

"People should seek work and many are, hence the numbers have been coming down steadily over the past number of months," he said.

This was a general rule of thumb — and this was the same for other welfare payment recipients — that these people were “obliged” to seek work, he said.

While acknowledging that certain sectors, such as the pub trade, had shut down because of the pandemic, he stood over the Government position that PUP recipients must be available to work.

He also said he would be seeking a report on how official Government advice on a website over the weekend was changed to represent this viewpoint.

“The overall view is that people should seek work even though they are on a pandemic unemployment payment,” he said.

“That in itself as a principle isn't new. On welfare payments, on jobseekers, people are obliged to seek work whilst on the payment."

He was speaking after social protection minister Heather Humphreys said the Government had temporarily suspended that flexibility of receiving usual payments while abroad because “we are not in normal circumstances”.

She said that, under normal circumstances, social welfare recipients on jobseeker's payments are allowed to take a two-week holiday without any impact on their regular payments.

However, Ms Humphreys acknowledged that some people in receipt of PUP should start looking for work, as they might not be able to return to their former job.

 Tánaiste Leo Varadkar Photo: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar Photo: Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin

Consternation was caused after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told RTÉ's The Week In Politics that it was his understanding that in order to receive the PUP, you have to be "seeking work and resident in Ireland and not travelling abroad".

He was speaking as the Department of Social Protection confirmed that 104 cases [of PUP] have been stopped as a result of checks carried out at airports.

The Department said 44 other social welfare payments, including jobseeker's payments and means-assessed payments, have also been closed down since July 7.

In a statement, the Department of Social Protection said the advice from Government remains that "it is safer to stay at home this summer".

Fianna Fáil's Limerick TD Willie O'Dea accused his own Government of "singling out" a cohort of people by stopping the PUP as a result of checks carried out at airports.

The former defence minister said 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".

He said he was unaware that the Government was going to proceed with this measure.

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