Q: Why is there a row about the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP)?
A: It has emerged that people who are in receipt of the PUP could have their payment stopped if they travel abroad for holidays. It was revealed at the weekend that payments of the PUP have been stopped 104 times by officials checking if people were on the welfare benefit before they went abroad on flights. A majority of the 104 people are believed to have been travelling home permanently or for an extended period. The revelations in the Business Post sparked a barrage of criticism of the Government.
Q: Why is there criticism? Isn’t it the case that people aren’t supposed to travel abroad for non-essential reasons?
A: Yes, due to the coronavirus pandemic the Government advice is that no one should travel abroad unless it is absolutely necessary. However, critics of the decision to cut the PUP payment for recipients caught heading off on holidays argue they are the only group that is financially penalised for doing this. They also point out that people who were unemployed and on jobseekers’ payments were always allowed to take two weeks’ holidays once they sought clearance from the Department of Social Protection, though this has now been suspended too.
Q: What’s this about PUP recipients being required to be “genuinely seeking work”?
A: Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said on RTÉ at the weekend that in order to qualify for the PUP, it was his understanding that recipients must “genuinely be seeking work” and be ordinarily resident in Ireland and that if they are not their payments can be stopped. There have been online claims - which have been seized upon by Opposition parties, including Sinn Féin - that the eligibility criteria were only updated on the department’s website today to include the requirement for PUP recipients to be seeking work after Mr Varadkar’s remarks.
Q: How does the Government respond to this?
A: The Government has not yet responded to the claims that the policy was changed after Mr Varadkar’s comments. Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys would not be drawn on precisely when this requirement was added. She insisted it is not new advice as people have always had to be looking for work for any unemployment benefit. She said some people whose workplaces have not fully reopened - like pub staff - will hope that they can return to their old jobs. But Ms Humphreys also said that, unfortunately, some people won’t be able to go back to their old jobs and they will have to seek new work.
Q: Who’s been raising concern about all this on the government benches?
A: Fianna Fail TD Willie O’Dea has claimed people on the PUP are being “singled out for punishment” by having it cut if they leave the country for holidays while others “can do it scot-free”. The Green Party’s Neasa Hourigan also questioned why one group of people would be policed while travelling abroad. Fianna Fáil’s Cormac Devlin and the Green’s Patrick Costello both raised questions over how data on the PUP recipients who travelled abroad was gathered and shared with the Department of Social Protection. Dublin Airport said it is not sharing passenger data with any third party agencies.
Q: So what happens next?
A: With Sinn Féin, Labour and some of the Government’s own TDs raising concerns over the situation, expect the issue to be raised when Ms Humphreys appears in the Dáil tomorrow during a debate on a Social Welfare Bill.