Q&A: What’s going on with the Pandemic Unemployment Payment?

New rules mean people travelling may lose benefits and must be ‘genuinely seeking work’

New rules mean people travelling may lose benefits and must be ‘genuinely seeking work’. Photograph: iStock

New rules mean people travelling may lose benefits and must be ‘genuinely seeking work’. Photograph: iStock

 

What the PUP is going on?

Quite. Let’s start at the beginning: The Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) is the €350 a week enhanced social welfare benefit for anyone who lost their job due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The scheme has been extended until April but the Government will cut the payment from September, close it to new applicants and taper the payments depending on whatrecipients earned pre-Covid. It’s being paid to more than a quarter of a million people (down from almost 600,000 people in May).

So why is it in the news now?

Sunday’s edition of the Business Post reported that some 104 people have had their PUP cut off because they were found to be boarding a flight abroad in breach of rules; another 44 people have had other payments, such as jobseeker’s allowance, cut for the same reason.

Can’t people on unemployment benefits travel?

Historically, this has been the case; you were allowed two weeks in any calendar year for a holiday, without losing your welfare entitlement. However, the Minister for Social Protection, Heather Humphreys, introduced a new rule two weeks ago stating that the holiday must be “in accordance with the Covid-19 General Travel Advisory in operation by the Department of Foreign Affairs”.

In cases whereby people need to travel overseas for essential reasons, the Department of Social Protection will continue to pay the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) to these recipients. Examples of this would be travelling abroad due to bereavement or to care for a sick family relative, according to the Department. It said the PUP is not paid to people who are leaving the country to reside elsewhere or who go on holidays abroad. Neither is the payment paid to individuals during a 14 day quarantine period.

Who does this apply to?

There was some confusion as to whether the restriction applied to those on PUP alone or on jobseekers, not helped by Táiniste Leo Varadkar stating on Sunday that those on jobseekers allowance are “allowed to take a break away of up to two weeks”. However, this appears not to be the case; on Monday, Ms Humphreys said that this flexibilty has been “temporarily suspended” - advice put up on Gov.ie on Sunday, and updated on Monday, states that holiday periods for Jobseeker’s payments have been suspended and will not be made to anyone who travels abroad. According to the Department the rules apply to people on the PUP and Jobseeker’s payments “as the Department of Social Protection temporarily suspended the normal two week holiday period for jobseekers”

Even to a green list country?

That is not clear; the statutory instrument introduced by Ms Humphreys refers to the “general travel advisory”. The Department of Foreign Affairs website states that its advice is against non-essential travel overseas but since the introduction of the Green List “travel to a very limited set of locations is exempted”, and non-essential travel can resume with normal precautions, or a so-called “green” rating. The Department said the green list is “not a list of holiday destinations”.

Have the airports been passing passenger information to the Government?

Again, Mr Varadkar’s appearance on The Week in Politics caused some confusion when he said the Department of Social Protection “gets information from the airports” - this caused concerns about data protection and privacy, and prompted Dublin Airport to clarify this morning that it doesn’t share data with third party agencies. The Department said checks involve inspectors speaking directly to passengers under legislation passed in 2005 and 2012.

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Are gardaí allowed to ask passengers for this information?

Gardaí can demand your name and address if they have a reasonable suspicion you have committed a road traffic or public order offence.

They can also demand the name and address of someone suspected of breaching a penal provision of the coronvirus legislation. Most of these penal provision have now been repealed. It appears as if social welfare payments conditions are not considered penal provisions. 

But gardaí have no general power to demand a name and address. They can request one however and, in practice most people provide it. Sources say most people stopped at the airports were simply requested to give their names, addresses and PPS numbers and they complied (perhaps not being aware that they had a choice).

Are there any concerns about all this?

In a word, yes. In the first instance, several people have questioned whether it is fair to cut someone’s dole for going on holidays, even if that’s against the travel advice. It is worth pointing out that hundreds of thousands of civil and public servants are required to take leave, including unpaid leave, if they need to quarantine after travel, even if working from home.

But civil liberties activists and lawyers are asking wider questions about whether the statutory instrument introduced by the Minister might be on legally shaky ground.

According to Liam Herrick, executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, there is a potential weakness in how the regulations are constructed. This, he says, is because the statutory instrument relies on the travel advisory - but that is, as the name suggests, just advice. “It seems to be grounded on, or give legal status to, something that isn’t the law, which is the travel advice.”

It’s a view shared by barrister William Quill, who argues that because the advisory from the Department of Foreign Affairs “has no legal basis.. It would be open to legal challenge [BY]someone affected, someone who had their payments removed from them during that period because of having gone on holiday”.

Mr Quill also argues that the Government did not do enough to inform people of the change when it was introduced on 10th July, that could also weaken their case for enforcing the rule, as people would have formed a legitimate expectation they could travel and the normal rules, ie that they could do so for two weeks without their payment being impacted.

Have the rules around qualifying for the PUP changed?

It’s not clear how, or whether, there’s a link between this and the travel question, but again, comments by Mr Varadkar on Sunday raised this issue. The Táiniste said someone had to be “genuinely seeking work” to receive the PUP. This is now listed as a condition for eligibility on the Gov.ie website, but archived versions of the page show that as recently as last Wednesday, it wasn’t. Also, the Irish language version of the site doesn’t list it as a condition. On Monday MS Humphreys confirmed that some people in receipt of PUP should start looking for work as they might not be able to return to their former job. The Department has been asked to clarify this.

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