Sunday 21 July 2019

Ash cloud crisis exposes 'welfare tourists'


DURING the volcanic-ash crisis that shut the country's airports the number of people who signed on the dole fell by more than 3,500, sparking suspicions that 'welfare tourists' are coming back to Ireland on cheap flights to claim benefits.

Now officials at the Department of Social Protection are to investigate those who did not sign on during the ash-cloud drama amid suspicions that foreign workers who lost their jobs and went home are still returning to claim millions in benefits.

The Department's own official figures show that during the week of April 18, 151,060 people were expected to sign on to the live register, but 3,515 people failed to show.

A spokeswoman for Department of Social Protection said the number of people who failed to show up that week was "increased" compared to weeks when the airports were open.

The spokeswoman said many of those who failed to show up to sign on during the crisis will be referred for further investigation, although if a claimant has a valid excuse payments will be restored.

Those who failed to sign on and could not provide an acceptable explanation will have lost their minimum Jobseekers Allowance of €784 -- €196 a week -- for the four-week period. The amount claimed increases according to the number of children in a family and how much in PRSI payments have been made.

Benefit payments were stopped from being paid directly into bank accounts in 2008 by then Social Welfare Minister Mary Hanafin, who ordered all new claimants to collect their cash in person from post offices using their Social Welfare swipe card as part of a fraud crackdown, and that was amended last year so that An Post staff could ask claimants for photo ID.

"With this figure of 3,515 there is a certain number of people every signing day that do not show up because they forget to attend," said a department spokesperson.

"They may be unwell, they may have taken up employment or a holiday, so that 3,515 would include those people as well.

"A certain number of those 3,515 would also have come back on later in the week and their payment continued as normal."

But the spokeswoman said the week of the ash-cloud crisis did show an increased number of absentees.

"It's increased on other weeks but it's not huge," she said.

Ireland's airports were affected for a total of 13 days during the ash-cloud crisis in April and May but the country's busiest airport in Dublin was shut for just 12 days.

Under EU regulations someone claiming the dole in Ireland for at least four weeks can transfer their payment to another EU state for a maximum of 13 weeks so they can look for work abroad.

According to last year's figures the highest number of applications for the transfer of dole payments is to Poland -- where 4,135 people asked for their benefits to be transferred at a cost of nearly €11m to the Irish taxpayer,.

The figure was more than 70 per cent of all applications to have dole transferred aboard and more than 10 times the number of the second country on the list, Slovakia with, 406.

The UK was third with 293, followed by the Czech Republic with 166.

The total cost to the Irish taxpayer was €15.6m.

Sunday Independent

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