A decision to suspend social welfare inspection visits into homes under level 5 restrictions has been welcomed.
The Irish Examiner reported on Thursday that such visits had continued even under Level 5 restrictions in limited circumstances.
An Irish Examiner investigation previously uncovered that numerous women on the lone parent payment have had distressing experiences with home visits.
Based on a reply to a parliamentary question from Minister Heather Humphreys to Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon, the department said that it was limiting home inspections to the greatest extent possible.
There was no mention of a suspension of visits in the parliamentary question reply.
In that reply, the Department of Social Protection said that their inspectors and staff are considered "essential services" and are carrying out their reviews in a limited capacity.
The department has now said that it initially suspended home inspections at the time the first lockdown restrictions were imposed.
The Department said a Business Continuity Plan was published for all staff on the Department’s Intranet site on October 15 which stated that when Level 4 or Level 5 restrictions are in place, in-person engagement with customers should only take place when absolutely essential.
When the decision was taken to move to Level 5, a message from senior management was issued to all staff in which it was again emphasised that some services should be curtailed, including social welfare inspection work.
“In any event, the expression to the ‘greatest extent possible’ would mean, even if level 5 didn’t apply, that only truly essential interviews would take place,” the department said confirming a level of interviews continued.
Mr Gannon queried why the answer to the PQ on Tuesday had not clarified the matter, but welcomed the department's update.
Social welfare inspectors have continued to carry out home visits during level 5 restrictions, the can reveal.
Despite all household visits banned for the general population since October, the Department of Social Protection has confirmed that their inspectors and staff are considered "essential services" and are carrying out their reviews in a limited capacity, a decision Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon called “callous".
Aninvestigation previously uncovered that numerous women on the lone parent payment have had distressing experiences with home visits.
Many have detailed that inspectors have rummaged through their underwear drawers and wardrobes, sat outside their homes, and claimed to have taken photos of them when with their children in public. The visits are carried out in order to detect fraud in the system while many women say they are made to feel "worthless" and "like a beggar".
In response to Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon, Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys confirmed that these visits have continued in a limited capacity despite the rise in Covid-19 cases linked to community transmission in "uncontrolled environments" like households and when most of the population have been ordered to work from home.
"My department is considered to be an essential service and will continue to provide customers with access to its services, as appropriate, during the course of the current level 5 restrictions," she said.
"As part of my department's obligations to ensure proper delivery of its service and compliance with the various scheme conditions, Social Welfare Inspectors are required to carry out a range of inspections including desk-based assessments of customer claims, face-to-face interviews with customers, home visits, and audits of employers’ PRSI records.
"In accordance with level 5 restrictions, public health advice and in the interest of the health and safety of both customers and staff, the department will seek to fully meet its obligations while limiting, to the greatest possible extent, any face-to-face interviews with customers, including routine inspections, while the current restrictions apply."
"My department has no plans to enact a review for social welfare inspections given the existing Code of Conduct and Customer Charter already in place to deal with any issues which may arise."
Mr Gannon says he finds it difficult to accept that these visits are essential in level 5.
“It’s disappointing that even as we are in the midst of a level 5 lockdown, that vulnerable groups on welfare are still being told that they may have to allow a social welfare inspector into their home.
"I find it difficult to accept that the department of social protection wouldn’t simply suspend this practice - I doubt anyone wants to enter the home of a stranger, or have a stranger call unannounced during a pandemic and that the department are still unwilling to simply state that the practice has ceased, demonstrates a really callous attitude towards recipients of social welfare."
Social welfare inspections on lone parents have continued through the Covid-19 pandemic despite the finding by the State's spending watchdog, the comptroller and auditor general calling on the department to review its approach.
In October this year, their report found that welfare recipients on working family payments and lone-parent payments were subject to "high review intensity" with overpayments between €20 and €72 respectively. Schemes with low levels of review like the state pension have high levels of overpayment.
When 8% of pension claimants were reviewed in 2019, one in five detected an overpayment and the average sum was €770.