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Covid welfare recipients 'are being unfairly targeted' over foreign trips

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Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys. Pic Steve Humphreys

Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys. Pic Steve Humphreys

Heather Humphreys

Heather Humphreys

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Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys. Pic Steve Humphreys

The halting of unemployment payments to welfare recipients caught going on holiday abroad has prompted claims they are being unfairly discriminated against, as well as raising data protection concerns.

The Government policy has attracted heavy criticism from opposition politicians and raised serious questions from TDs on its own benches.

It comes after the practice of stopping payments for Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) recipients found to be travelling abroad for non-essential reasons was revealed at the weekend.

The Government last night denied claims that welfare recipients were being discriminated against.

Rise TD Paul Murphy accused the Government of "scandalous discrimination against PUP recipients".

Fianna Fáil's former social protection spokesman Willie O'Dea also claimed welfare recipients had been "singled out for punishment" and asked "why should one particular category be penalised for it when everybody else can do it scot-free?"

He told RTÉ Radio he would be raising the issue with Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys in the Dáil and asking the Government to withdraw the campaign.

Labour TD Seán Sherlock demanded that Ms Humphreys provide a full explanation on how the data was collected at Dublin Airport.

Sinn Féin's Louise O'Reilly said she had written to Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon asking for her view on the legality of the collection and processing of passenger data at airports and seaports.

Dublin Airport has denied involvement in the practice after facing queries on social media.

Separately, Sinn Féin TD Claire Kerrane criticised comments by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on Sunday. He said it was his understanding that recipients must "genuinely be seeking work" and be ordinarily resident in Ireland to get the PUP and it could be stopped if they were not.

There were online claims that the eligibility criteria was updated on the Department of Social Protection's website yesterday after Mr Varadkar's remarks.

Ms Kerrane said she was "shocked" by such reports and claimed it would be an "insult" to welfare recipients who have lost jobs in the pandemic.

Government sources strenuously denied claims that the requirement for PUP recipients to be seeking work was published to back up Mr Varadkar's comments.

A Department of Social Protection statement said its website was updated regularly and was earlier this week "to provide clarity surrounding the issue of the PUP". It said this "should not be perceived as a change in policy".

Ms Humphreys told RTÉ that the public health advice was clear and people should not travel abroad except for essential reasons.

She responded to the suggestion that PUP recipients were being penalised, saying that 340,000 public servants would not be paid during the two-week quarantine period if they travelled abroad.

Ms Humphreys said that private-sector companies have told their staff the same thing.

"We're not trying to pick on anybody here.

"We are doing what is right by the country to protect our people," Ms Humphreys added.

Her department later responded to questions raised about data protection, insisting that since 2012 social welfare inspectors have had legal power to carry out checks at ports and airports since 2012.

It said the department did not have access to travel data.

The department also said: "The vast majority of PUP cases stopped as a result of the compliance checks relate to individuals leaving the country permanently.

The statement added: "If a person returns to Ireland, it is open to them to re-apply for the PUP."

Irish Independent