Covid-19 PUP suspension following airport checks challenged by human rights group

Leinster Express Reporter

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Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment form

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment form

An Irish human rights group of legal advisors claims Social Welfare officials monitoring the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) suspended payment after blanket checks of certain flights at airports.  

The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) says it has made a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands in response to their ongoing review of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) Scheme.

FLAC highlighted a number of issues in relation to the scheme including the Department of Social Protection’s failure to address concerns about the actions of Social Welfare Inspectors at airports.

"FLAC called for an independent review of these activities with a view to establishing how many persons’ claims for social welfare payments were suspended on foot “airport checks” which were conducted in a manner contrary to the social welfare code and which examines how and why certain flights were selected for “blanket” checks," said a statement.

FLAC Managing Solicitor Sinéad Lucey said that FLAC’s submission was informed by casework undertaken by the organisation.

“FLAC’s submission spotlights instances where clients of FLAC encountered difficulties accessing the PUP Scheme. One such client was a resident in Direct Provision who had been laid off in March 2020 but whose claim for the PUP was only awarded in August. She only received arrears in respect of the period since she was laid off after FLAC made representations to the Department on her behalf.

"Another client had her claim for the Covid PUP suspended in May 2020 after she was subject to a ‘blanket’ airport check while travelling to Romania to attend to a family emergency. The suspension was put in place at no notice to her and without any written decision. This woman suffered significant financial hardship as a result of the suspension. FLAC made representations to the Department on her behalf, raising concerns at the manner in which her payment had been suspended and the potentially discriminatory nature of the Department’s actions. A settlement on confidential terms was reached in that instance.

"FLAC is concerned that there may be many others in similar positions to our clients who have not had the issues they have encountered with the PUP scheme addressed,” she said.

FLAC said the submission also points out the lack of clarity in relation how and when residents in Direct Provision (who were unable to access the payment until August this year) may access back-payments of the Covid PUP which the Department has committed to providing.

Further, FLAC says it also draws attention to the FLAC Briefing Note which it says was circulated to members of the Oireachtas last week in relation to the provisions of section 3 of the Finance Bill 2020 which proposes to retrospectively create a tax liability in respect of PUP payments. FLAC’s note highlights how this may create an unexpected tax liability which disproportionately affects those who have suffered the most financial hardship as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and how section 3 may not be in accordance with the constitutional protection of citizen’s property rights. 

FLAC Chief Executive, Eilis Barry said its submission to the Committee will inform their report to the Minister and the issues raised therein will be addressed.

"FLAC also hopes that our significant concerns in relation to section 3 of the Finance Bill 2020 will be addressed as it progresses through the Oireachtas. Rights are never more important than during a crisis and we at FLAC believe that it is of utmost importance that policymakers give careful consideration to the constitutional and legal rights of those who rely on social welfare supports at this time.”

FLAC describes itself as an Irish human rights organisation, which exists to promote equal access to justice.