Sweeping powers to deny workers locked out of their jobs emergency welfare payments were set to be passed by the Dail last night, amid claims Ireland is just steps away from being a “police state”.
The new laws will require pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) claimants to be “genuinely seeking” work-despite some sectors, such as pubs and entertainment, remaining shut due to the pandemic.
The controversial welfare clampdown comes as coalition TDs raise concerns about separate targetting of PUP claimants going on holiday and criticism about the changing government policy.
The government majority tabled the welfare Covid-19 legislation last night, putting the €350 weekly payment on a statutory footing.
But the legislation says a person is entitled to payment where they are “genuinely seeking but unable to obtain employment suitable for him or her".
This angered TDs. It came after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on the weekend said claimants must be "seeking work” and "ordinarily resident in Ireland".
This led to overnight changes on government websites.
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
The law changes and shifting government position came to a head yesterday as Taoiseach Micheal Martin faced angry Dail questions and as data and legal experts also challenged the new policy.
Mr Martin said 104 people docked PUP claims after checks at airports were not returning to Ireland.
He added: “There is no agenda here in terms of the PUP or penalising any one sector as opposed to the other."
Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys stood over her department policy last night, during a Dail debate on the PUP legislation.
There was never any flexibility for PUP recipients to holiday abroad, she told TDs.
Welfare inspectors had also been mandated to conduct airport checks since 2012, she claimed.
Ms Humphreys said department inspectors had no access to travel data and instead were “on the ground” and operating “within statutory powers”.
However, legal rights organisation FLAC has weighed into the row, accusing the government of having no clear legal basis for sanctioning Covid PUP claimants holidaying abroad.
CEO Eilis Barry said that existing legislation may allow suspension of Jobseekers Benefit but does not allow sweeping powers to close other payments people may receive - including Covid PUP.
FLAC want the government to suspend the policy.
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has also been forced to seek more answers from the Department of Social Protection over how data is being handled at ports and airports.
Fianna Fail and Green TDs are increasingly concerned about the controversy.
Kildare North TD James Lawless said it was “reasonable” for people to stay on the PUP until their employment reopened. It didn't make sense for some, such as barmen, to “run off and get work in the local factory or shop” while they waited, he said.
“The whole notion is we are in this together, but people will get back up [on their feet] at different speeds. We have to give people latitude.” Mr Lawless questioned the laws governing how social protection authorities gathered data.
“There is a conflation of power with what revenue or immigration do. I'm not aware of the statutory footing for this or if the motivation is solid.” He said such actions left Ireland just “steps away from being a police state”.
Cork North Central TD Padraig O'Sullivan said he had mixed opinions about the PUP, but the changes were “too restrictive”.
Dublin South West TD John Lahart queried the difference for a claimant holidaying here or abroad.
Green TD Patrick Costello said he and colleagues had been left in the dark about changes.
"There has been no internal communication on this. We are getting no information from government."
Other Green TDs said they were contacted by constituents over the targeting of PUP claimants but found out about changes and checks at airports through the media.
Meanwhile, health authorities reported no deaths but another 40 cases of the virus, one of the highest increases in recent weeks.