Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages


1:00 pm

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent)

I move amendment No. 7:

In page 11, after line 38, to insert the following:“Report on Social Welfare (Consolidated Claims, Payments and Control) (Amendment)(No. 9) (Absence from the State) Regulations 2020 (S.I. No. 242 of 2020)

13. In respect of the amendment made to section 249 of the Principal Act by the Social Welfare (Consolidated Claims, Payments and Control) (Amendment) (No. 9) (Absence from the State) Regulations 2020 (S.I. No. 242 of 2020), the Minister shall— (a)within six weeks of the passing of this Act, prepare a report to be laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas containing the rationale behind S.I. No. 242 of 2020 and information on the manner of its implementation, including detail on any data sharing arrangements and the action of social welfare inspectors in airports, and

(b) ensure that any persons to whom S.I. No. 242 of 2020 might apply are provided with such explanatory and supporting documents from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection as may be required when seeking refunds in respect of cancelled foreign travel.”.

This is a new section I am proposing in light of the high levels of confusion in terms of the different messages we have had and the ambiguity that has been created. Today, I see the Minister has referred again to making new regulations. I note that the statutory instrument that was there, SI 242, actually said that people could holiday but they had to be compliant with the general Government travel advisory on Covid. It was not one particular instance of the general travel advisory, as the travel advisory was a moving entity.A new statutory instrument is not needed, therefore, because the existing instrument provides for people taking a holiday in compliance with the travel advisory.

There is a separate equity and justice issue arising here and it is what I am seeking to address in the amendment. There is an inequity in that, for most persons in the State, the travel advisory is merely advisory, but for those who on are on a jobseeker's payment, it seems very much to be a requirement and it has penalty and consequence if they are out of line with it. At the time the gov.iewebsite was telling people they could not travel for a holiday, they were, in fact, entitled to do so under SI 242 of 10 July 2020. The instrument simply said that - I will use the exact words because this is the nub of everything - people could take a holiday "in accordance with the general Covid-19 travel advice" from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The most important point here is that in the application of the statutory instrument, there was an understanding that the Department would make itself constantly apprised of changes but the provision was already in place. When people were told this week that they could not go on holiday, that was not accurate. It is not the case that it will become possible for them to do so today by way of changes in regulations; it was already legally possible for them to do so.

There are questions to be asked about the travel advisory from the Government and whether there should be a green list of countries to which non-essential travel is open. We should perhaps have a much narrower remit regarding who can travel and what non-essential travel is allowed. I am aware that the guidance is, in part, a measure to protect the airlines by allowing flights to continue. However, there are other ways in which the Government could protect and support Aer Lingus and the case has been made very strongly in both Houses for the need for State intervention and support in that regard. If it is keeping non-essential flights moving and non-essential travel in play, which is what the Government decided to do in its advisory, and if the travel advisory is general and applies to everybody, then it was, since 10 July, also the general travel advisory for people on the PUP. It is important that we be really clear on that. I am asking in this amendment for a report in respect of SI 242, which was brought in on 10 July 2020. I want to know a little bit about the rationale behind the instrument. What is the rationale for making it a requirement for certain cohorts of the population, including those who are on jobseeker's payments, to comply with the travel advisory, whereas for everybody else, it is simply just advice? That is a concern and an inconsistency and it creates ambiguity.

Another question I have relates to the manner of implementation of the statutory instrument, and this is where there are significant outstanding concerns. The Data Protection Commissioner has indicated she has concerns and wants answers in respect of how information was accessed. The Minister told us in the House that no information is shared and no information is accessed. I do not doubt her bona fides in believing this to be the case, but we need to know for certain that it is the case and a report would give certainty. We have had reports of people who had booked to travel on a ferry but never went to the port and never boarded that ferry but who nevertheless had their payment stopped. This was done, they were told, because they had left the country. There are questions as to how that information was accessed. There are also multiple reports of people being asked for their PPS number and being told there was an immigration concern. Having been asked by gardaí for their PPS number, they found that this information was then conveyed to their social welfare office in reference to the payment they were receiving. They were told-----


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