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)

Yes, I am discussing my amendment No. 7 in respect of SI 242, concerning travel, and its implementation. What I am saying is directly relevant to what I set out the amendment. I am speaking specifically to the provision that a report be produced containing details on any data-sharing arrangements arising out of inspection procedures and the actions of social welfare inspectors at ports and airports. I am pointing out to the Minister that there is an inconsistency between what we have heard from her today and from her Department, on the one hand, and what we have heard from individuals who are being asked questions by gardaí at ports and airports.

I have seen a report suggesting that 114 staff were assigned to examine false claims, including a secondment of 20 gardaí. It is very notable, as another speaker observed, that the HSA has carried out only 67 inspectors during the Covid period. There are 114 people busily working to try to catch out individuals who may have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis but only 67 inspectors inspecting workplaces to ensure they are safe, even though we know that unsafe workplaces are one of the greatest causes of an escalation in infections. That is why I want the Minister to address the work assignations and actions of social welfare inspectors. It might have been a better use of 20 gardaí to second them to the HSA to allow for an escalation of inspections, as Senator Gavan suggested earlier, in meat processing factories, construction sites and other places where we have seen clusters develop and where we know there are not enough health and safety inspectors going in. It is a question of prioritisation.

I am seeking a report on who was carrying out inspections at ports and airports and why they were doing so. Regardless of whether gardaí are seconded to the social welfare service and whether they are seconded as social welfare inspectors, if such gardaí do not make clear the purposes for which they are seeking information from individuals at the time they are seeking it, then that is not a valid action and it is not in line with GDPR requirements. People need to be very clear about the purposes for which information is being sought from them. We know there are multiple reports of individuals being told that the information was sought in respect of immigration control measures or something else. They were not told that the information was being sought in respect of their qualification for social welfare payments.

These issues need to be addressed and resolved. There is also concern, as I said, in respect of the sharing of data from passenger travel manifests. Again, the Data Protection Commissioner herself has expressed concerns in this regard. I hope the Minister will indicate that she intends to co-operate very fully and in a very timely way with the commissioner. There have been frustrations in that regard in the past, not from the Minister personally but in terms of the Department and its engagement with the commissioner. I hope the latter will have full and speedy co-operation in every respect on this matter. I have outlined the concerns regarding data-sharing arrangements. If a person has booked with a transit company to travel and does not travel, and that information is apparently known to their local social welfare office, then that office got it somehow and from somewhere. The question of how that is happening needs to be examined.

Finally, subsection (b) of my amendment would introduce a requirement that all persons to whom SI 242 might apply, including all of those on PUP and who were required by the statutory instrument to travel only in accordance with the general Covid travel advisory, that is, to avoid all non-essential travel except to green-list countries, would be given explanatory and supporting documents from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to allow them to seek refunds in respect of the cancellation of foreign travel.It would be a practical measure and, I suggest, a nice gesture. Regardless of whether the Minister accepts my amendment, she might indicate that she may do this for those who have been given mixed signals, inaccurate information, confusing suggestions and information on Government websites to the effect that they cannot trave. Some may have cancelled their plans to travel this week, even though they were allowed to travel under the statutory instrument. She might also consider doing so for those who, without having been told to do so, saw the travel advisory and were not at airports because, like the person we heard about who had a ferry journey booked but chose not to take it, made a responsible decision not to go to airports or ports and not to continue with their existing travel plans. That was not simply a choice they have made. As it is a requirement on them by the Department, I ask that they be given paperwork from the Department to communicate that to allow them to try to get their money back on holidays booked. In some cases, these will be holidays people booked before they became unemployed. In other cases, they will be holidays people booked even though they are unemployed. It is also important to remember that, in many cases, a person who is unemployed is part of a family. They may have a wife, husband or partner. They may have children. All of those travel plans for that entire family are impacted by the statutory instrument. Families who have a family holiday booked and have chosen to cancel it or discovered they had to cancel it this week should be entitled to seek compensation or some form of refund. I hope the Department will give these families the paperwork they need to do that as expeditiously and easily as possible.


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