Neil Michael: Subtle change to PUP rules has Big Brother alarm bells sounding

Neil Michael: Subtle change to PUP rules has Big Brother alarm bells sounding

Passengers pictured in Dublin Airport yesterday. It was confirmed over the weekend that the pandemic unemployment payment was stopped for 104 people after the Department of Social Welfare found out that they had left the country for non-essential purposes. Picture: Sasko Lazarov/

Up until Sunday, most people assumed that the pandemic unemployment payments were for anyone who lost their job due to Covid-19.

But in a flash, all the illusion has gone.

You now, apparently, have to be seeking work to get the Covid-19 PUP.

And, it is emerging, that as you leave or enter the country, your details and your movements are now being shared by a wider variety of State agencies than you might have first realised.

If ever there was a Big Brother alarm bell sounding in the country, it is now. Who knew so many agents of the State were employed to check the flight details of tens of thousands of people leaving and entering Ireland to see if they are in receipt of welfare payments?

And who knew that if you were one of the 280,000 or so people in receipt of PUPs, you couldn't go on holiday? From the outrage over the past 48 hours, it would appear very few people indeed knew.

And those in the dark could well have included the 104 people in receipt of the payments who lost them after the State found out that they had left the country.

Two things put the proverbial cat among the pigeons on the issue: the Business Post and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. 

On RTÉ’s The Week in Politics on Sunday, he was asked on what legal basis were, as the paper had reported, people having their benefits stopped because they decided to go on holiday? 

He didn’t give one, and instead said it was his understanding that you lost your payment if you weren’t genuinely looking for work — a tough thing to do in a pandemic that has caused mass unemployment.

Then he casually explained that the Department of Social Protection “gets information from airports”. 

And if they are found not to be genuinely looking for work, their welfare payment “can be stopped”.

An incredulous Aine Lawlor noted that we’ve never stopped people before.

Until he spoke on the programme, online Government information on the issue clearly stated of PUPs: "The holiday entitlements are the same as those for jobseeker's payments".

This was advice first published on on June 16, and which was later updated on July 27.

But while the note about holiday entitlements clearly stated they were the same as jobseeker’s payments entitlements, it is only when you click on a hyperlink for those holiday entitlement rules that you realise that they have been suspended.

Clicking on the link leads you to another page, entitled 'Jobseeker’s Payments Holiday Entitlements'. The page was first published on Sunday, July 26. 

This was the very day Mr Varadkar appeared on The Week in Politics.

The update states: “At present, holiday periods permitted for jobseeker's payments have been suspended. Jobseeker's payments will not be made to anyone who travels abroad."

It was noted on Twitter, that the 'How to Qualify' for the Covid-19 PUP section did not state on July 12 that you had to be looking for work.

But a July 27 change to the qualifications included a rule that those receiving it have to be “genuinely seeking work”.

The 'optics' of this are not great, for a variety of reasons.

The first of these is the fact that people worst affected economically are being actively targeted by the State and penalised for going on holiday. 

This is at a time when a number of things have happened, including the recent allocation of a €16,288 pay increase for super-junior ministers of State.

Added to that, it’s not so long ago that Revenue very quietly announced that tax exiles can stay here for as long as they have to, due to the pandemic. That decision goes back to April.

Up to that point, Irish billionaires like John Magnier and Dermot Desmond — who are both tax-resident in Switzerland — could only spend up to 183 days in Ireland in any given year.

However, Revenue issued “guidance” which stated that “where an individual is prevented from leaving the State on his or her intended day of departure, the individual will not be regarded as being present in the State for tax residence purposes". 

And it stated this would apply provided that “the individual is unavoidably present in the State on that day due only to ‘force majeure’ circumstances”.

In defending its access to information, the Department of Public Protection states that schemes operated by the department every day include multi-agency checkpoints and checks at airports. 

It conducts these checks by “working collaboratively” with customs officers, gardaí or immigration officials.

For anybody who hasn’t noticed, they’ve actually been able to do this for years. Provision was made in the Social Welfare & Pension Act 2012 to allow for social welfare inspectors to exercise certain functions for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the act.

Where the inspector has reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention of the Social Welfare Act, they can question passengers about “any matter that concerns compliance with this act”. The inspector can also demand “any documents or other information as that inspector may require” to establish their identity and their home address.

While it remains unclear what agency is accessing what information, those giving it to them include the Dublin Airport Authority and the airlines.

The DAA says on its website: “Where data is provided by us to a regulatory body or law enforcement agency to meet statutory or regulatory obligations, activities undertaken by those parties are outside our control.”

And the agencies it says it “may be obliged to share information with” include gardaí, Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS), and Revenue’s tax and customs service.

Aer Lingus says it shares “individual passport information and Passenger Name Record (PNR) data”. And it says it does this where it has to comply with its regulatory obligations and regulations as required by the EU API and PNR directive.

EU Directive 2016/681, which the Department of Justice says sets down rules on the use of PNR data for the “prevention, detection, investigation, and prosecution of terrorist offences and serious crime”, became effective on May 25, 2018.

It requires airlines to provide advance PNR information to the authorities on all non-EU flights entering or leaving the State.

The department also says it may also be required to provide PNR data at “other times”. 

This is, they say, on a “case-by-case basis” and is where access to that data is required in order to respond to “a specific and actual threat related to terrorist offences” or “serious crime”.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has understandably 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 yesterday: “We are talking of people being cut off because they have gone on holidays, even though it is not unlawful to go on holidays.”

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