Couple's child benefit stopped after trip abroad

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon forced to seek greater clarity   over how personal information is handled at the country's ports and airports.
Couple's child benefit stopped after trip abroad
Data Commissioner Helen Dixon is seeker greater clarity over how personal information will be handled at Ireland's borders. Picture: Sam Boal

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has been forced to seek greater clarity from the Department of Social Protection over how personal information is handled at the country's ports and airports.

While officials at the department have given her office an initial explanation about what they are doing, the Data Protection Commissioner has sent back further questions.

Deputy Commissioner Graham Doyle said: “We are expecting answers to further questions to get more clarity.”

The department has claimed that its decision to stop pandemic unemployment payments (PUP) after learning that recipients are about to or have already boarded a plane to go on holiday is backed by law.

However, the relevant laws state that inspectors have to have a “reasonable” suspicion that someone is committing an offence.

There have been claims that inspectors have been questioning large numbers of passengers before they leave.

RTE’s Liveline heard claims that inspectors stopped every passenger about to board a flight to Bulgaria.

Passengers were all asked for their PPS numbers and other personal information.

Some Liveline callers who were on other flights claimed they were stopped by gardai and told they were being asked questions as part of a routine immigration probe.

However, they subsequently discovered that details of their flight appear to have been passed onto the Department of Social Protection.

Roman Shorthall told Liveline and his wife Catalina, a naturalized Irish citizen, were about to fly to Romania on June 13 with their two children when they were questioned at the departure gate.

Two gardaí and two social welfare inspectors were stopping each passenger in the queue, said Mr Shortall, a law student. A social welfare inspector asked him for ID and his PPS number.

He refused, as did his wife, but the couple was later approached by uniformed gardaí, who asked to see his passport for what they said was a standard “passport check."

He says they wrote down information from that passport onto a form.

Again, Mr Shortall objected and eventually he was allowed onto the flight.

He says that when the couple returned, they discovered their child benefit had been stopped.

He told Liveline that when he queried it, he was told it was because he had been away on holiday.

The payment is in the process of being paid back to him after he pointed out that going on holiday is not a bar to receiving child benefit.

The Irish Examiner asked the Garda Press Office to explain under exactly what laws do any of the officers or people contracted by gardaí at Dublin Airport share what private/personal information with which State agencies. As of tonight, the force had not provided an explanation.

The Department of Social Protection was asked on what legal basis do its inspectors have to ask all passengers boarding a plane for their PPS numbers. The department declined to respond.

The Social Welfare & Pension Act 2012 allows for Inspectors to question any passenger where the inspector has "reasonable grounds" to believe that there has been a contravention of the Social Welfare Act.

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