Seanad debates

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

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

 

1:00 pm

Photo of Heather HumphreysHeather Humphreys (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)

-----and I have no intention of going there.

We need to put this issue into perspective. Social welfare staff paid the pandemic unemployment payment to more than 600,000 people. They did it by way of a one-page online application. The normal checks did not apply. They did not have face-to-face meetings. They did not have those normal checks. The payment was introduced quickly, as the Senator knows. As we all said at the time, speed trumped perfection. The truth is that there was room for some to abuse it. Given the size of the budget of this Department, it has always had a control function. It is the biggest payment organisation in the State and there has to be checks and balances in place because, unfortunately, not everybody is transparent and honest in their dealings with the Department. The staff have to check. That is part of what they do. I gave this figure earlier. Since 13 March, the claims of 2,500 PUP recipients were stopped because the majority of them - well over 90% - were leaving the country permanently.They were not entitled to receive that payment, nor should they be getting it. We cannot pay everybody who comes into this country and then decides to leave. We cannot keep giving them payments while not living here. Those are the rules. Those figures alone would have cost the Irish taxpayer €20.5 million. They are the people who will have to pay that bill at the end of the day. There is a responsibility on the staff of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There have always been people working on the checks and controls, and they do a very good job. Somebody may have been asked a question they should not have been asked but the Senator has to realise the volume of what they are dealing with. I do not believe the staff go out to intentionally target any particular group. In fact, I know they do not, but they have to ask the questions.

I want to make it very clear also that there is no data sharing. I will repeat that in case anybody thinks that is the case. There is no data sharing with my Department. My officials have assured me that it does not happen. The only people we share the data with is the Revenue Commissioners. That is in the legislation. We are allowed to do that, but there is no data sharing with officials in the Dublin Airport Authority or any place else.

The public health advice remains that people should holiday in Ireland. I do not know why everybody is suddenly obsessed with going abroad because the public health advice is that we should stay here. I am staying here, and I am sure most of the people in this room are staying here. We are all holidaying in Ireland because we have been told clearly to do that. I saw on the news this evening that the pandemic is accelerating across Europe. At the time this was looked at it was felt that we wanted to encourage as many people as possible to stay at home, and we know that. Members should think back to a few months ago. Do they remember the outrage over the Cheltenham festival? There was outrage that people were allowed travel to Cheltenham. They returned and it was felt that they had brought back the virus with them. I very much hope that the virus does not increase in this country but if it did at some future stage, I would be in this House answering questions as to the reason my Department was paying out payments to people who went against public health advice by leaving this country. That is something we have to consider. The way the regulations are worded now means that people can travel to countries on the green list and their payment will not be affected. If someone is travelling to one of those countries he or she will not have to isolate when they come back here. The transmission rate in those countries is either the same or lower than here so they can do that. In terms of all the rest, the public health advice is that people should not travel to those countries. We cannot ignore that advice and must take account of it.

I cannot accept this amendment. SI 242/2020 was laid before both Houses and the Senator did not seek to annul it. The statutory instrument has no relevance to the statutory powers of inspectors. These powers are under section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended.

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