Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Second Stage


1:00 pm

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent) | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Go n-éirí go geal léi ina dualgas nua. During the interregnum I saw the Minister on a number of occasions. She has had a busy time and I wish her well in her brief.

I will start by quoting a letter I received from a supporter of mine which expresses the confusion and fear caused to people where there are governance and administrative complications such as the one that has arisen in respect of the pandemic unemployment payment and the impact on people of travelling abroad, in respect of which issues and controversies have arisen.

I am writing to you regarding the legislation passed tonight by the Dáil regarding the PUP entitlement. My husband was "temporarily laid off work" last March due to the pandemic. He works for a distribution company depending on restaurants, hotels and bars, which are either closed or partially open due to the Covid restrictions. Hotels are at reduced capacity due to the need for deep cleaning, social distancing rules, no [tourists from abroad] etc (enforced by the government). He wants to go back to his own employment but the company is not at full capacity yet through no fault of their own.

We both are shocked, distressed and worried about the new threat from the government to withhold payments of PUP unless "genuinely seeking work". I am wondering where is this "work" going to miraculously come from in a pandemic?

My husband was forced to leave work due to a lockdown. He has lost months of his full salary and contributions to his private pension have ceased and he will face a tax bill at the end of the year for the PUP. He is "genuinely seeking" to return to his employment as he is 54 years old and not qualified for another job. Besides this, his employer has not let him go permanently. My husband doesn't know where he stands.

I have no doubt but that in response to a concern such as this, the Minister would say these people are not being targeted and that these are the people the Government seeks to protect in this situation. One of the lessons we all have to learn is that when we talk about restrictions on people, welfare payments and so on, there has to be good and clear governance. It has to be clear what the law is and where the powers that are exercised come from. There is a validity, therefore, to the interventions in recent days by the likes of the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and so on.

That said, I wonder sometimes about the narrative that takes hold. I have a lot of sympathy for what Senator Buttimer said. People such as the person I have just quoted will need the support of the State. We are only at the beginning of this crisis, and the financial hit that will come from the pandemic will ask hard questions of us all. The discontent in recent days about ministerial salaries and so on is only beginning. All of us as a society, particularly those of us who are fortunate enough to be in permanent, pensionable employment, will, before this is all over, be asked for sacrifices, which we will have to be ready to make. It is important, therefore, that as we seek to cater for people who have lost their jobs and are in situations of uncertainty, we recognise that welfare fraud is not a matter of class prejudice.The Government has a duty to try to investigate and prevent fraud so that it will have the resources to help people like my correspondent and her family. There must be good governance and accountability, but it is a bad idea to politicise these issues because one ends up creating fears for people. A back bench Deputy stated that the actions taken showed that Ireland was just steps away from being a police state. That language is not acceptable. If people like the Deputy use such language, it shows that they have never been in a police state and will not have the language they need to discuss genuine human rights abuses and what is really a police state. There are complex issues that may have to be addressed. In another example from recent days, I believe Mr. Brian Killoran of the Immigrant Council of Ireland described a situation where a gentleman from Pakistan had had his phone records examined to see whether his relationship with his Polish wife was bona fide before he could get back into the country. I had a great deal of sympathy for that man - his document should have been enough - but I have to acknowledge in the same breath that, although some people have documents, there is more going on behind the scenes involving fraud, arrangements being made to cheat the system and so on.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the people who try to run our system, but there must be good governance and a clear legal basis. On the other side, NGOs and politicians must mind their language so as not to overstate the problem when problems and mistakes occur.


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