Daniel McConnell: Another day, another u-turn for government

Daniel McConnell: Another day, another u-turn for government
The issue of overseas holidays and PUP recipients got the government in a tangle. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Another day, another u-turn - and you know things are bad when even your u-turns are not stopping political landmines.

On Monday, the government u-turned and announced it was taking a 10% cut in pay, only for it to emerge they were still better off than ministers in the last government.

On Tuesday, after a week of controversy, the three 'super junior' ministers announced they were gifting back their €16,000 top-up allowance, taking a smaller amount instead.

Then on Wednesday, Heather Humphreys became the latest 'Minister for U-Turns' when she attempted to dig herself out of the hole she found herself in because of the decision to withhold or stop the pandemic unemployment payment to people who have left the country on a holiday.

But hang on. For time immemorial, people on welfare were allowed to go on two weeks’ holidays without their benefits being affected. And certainly, even if the rules allowed for it, the stopping of payments to people going on holidays has not happened before.

So what changed?

On Monday night, after the Taoiseach Micheál Martin ordered an investigation into why the website on Humphreys’ department was changed over the weekend, she issued a statement that told us that in some cases the PUP will be paid where people need to travel.

This would include travelling abroad due to bereavement or to care for a sick family relative. At that point, they said the PUP is not paid to people who are leaving the country to reside elsewhere or who go on holidays abroad.

They said the eligibility criteria have always been clear that a recipient must be living in the State in order to receive a Pandemic Unemployment Payment and cannot be absent from the State.

Here came the kicker.

These rules also currently apply to jobseeker’s payments as the Department of Social Protection temporarily suspended the normal two-week holiday period for jobseekers.

“In normal circumstances, there is flexibility under Social Welfare legislation whereby a person in receipt of jobseekers can leave the country for up to two weeks without this affecting their payment. However, we are not living in normal circumstances. Given that the clear public health advice is not to travel abroad except for essential reasons, the Department temporarily suspended this flexibility on 10th July,” Humphreys’ department said.

But what is clear is that the temporary suspension on jobseekers appeared to take effect to people on the PUP without prior notice of said regulation.

Minister Heather Humphries changed her approach to PUP between Tuesday evening and this morning.  Picutre: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
Minister Heather Humphries changed her approach to PUP between Tuesday evening and this morning.  Picutre: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Cue outrage.

In the Dáil on Tuesday night, Humphreys dug in and defended the decision to withhold the payment.

She said that of 2,500 PUP claims that have been stopped since March, the vast majority of these, over 90%, relate to people who were permanently leaving the country.

But on Wednesday morning, a more contrite and humble Humphreys presented herself.

“I have listened to the concerns expressed in recent days in relation to people whose payment was stopped due to the fact they were travelling abroad on a holiday. I know that there are cases where people may have travelled abroad and genuinely not been aware of the travel guidance or criteria which applied to PUP,” she said.

“And I accept that my Department could have communicated more effectively on this issue. For that reason, I have directed my Department to review all cases to date where people who went on holiday and had their payment stopped,” she said.

“In line with the Government’s Travel Advice, I have now asked my officials to amend the regulations so that people on jobseekers who wish to travel to any of the countries on the green list can do so and continue to receive their payment,” she said, confirming the u-turn. That will mean persons on PUP can travel to green list countries and their payment will not be impacted.

While Labour’s Sean Sherlock welcomed the u-turn he said the legal basis of the regulations were still in doubt.

For Humphreys, her party leader and her embattled Taoiseach, the summer break cannot come soon enough.

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