Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020: Committee and Remaining Stages
Alice-Mary Higgins (Independent)
With due respect to the Minister, the issue of actions in respect of persons who are not living in Ireland - the 90% of cases, as she described it - are not relevant to the report I seek. It is not in respect of the right and function of the control of the Department in terms of ensuring that the persons who are getting payments are living in Ireland. I would underscore that I believe there will be future problems if that construction of living in Ireland becomes "in Ireland at all times". There are question marks around the requirement of people to notify the Department every time they are not in the country; that is a separate issue. My amendment, and the report I seek, does not relate to any of those 2,000 people. They specifically relate to persons who are penalised in respect of having been, or are suspected of having been, on holiday."Holiday" does not mean "not living in the country". My amendment and report relate to the provisions in SI 242, which changed the definition of "holiday". Bear in mind that jobseekers have always been entitled to two weeks' holiday. I am not seeking to annul SI 242. I am simply asking for clarity about how it has been implemented. It makes the definition of "holiday" mean "holiday, in accordance with the Covid-19 General Travel Advisory in operation by the Department of Foreign Affairs". Someone can holiday in accordance with that advisory.
I agree with the Minister that people should not be holidaying abroad and should be holidaying at home. It is regrettable that the Government does not give more robust advice on that matter. It will not be the Minister on her own who will be answering before a committee or the Houses of the Oireachtas in future. This will not be on her, given that it was a Government decision - specifically, it was the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - to give a general Covid-19 travel advisory that advised against non-essential travel but explicitly excluded a number of countries known as the green list countries, those being, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Hungary, Greece, etc. I disagree with the Minister, in that I do not believe that the advice to avoid travel was clear. The Government's advice is that people can travel to these countries regardless of whether it is essential. That is not ideal advice, and we know that the virus is already entering its second wave in many countries. We should have much more restrictive general Covid-19 travel advisories. If we did, SI 242 would not even have to change because it simply refers to the ongoing travel advisory. New regulations would not need to be made because this statutory instrument would cover us. This is a key point.
There is an ethical issue if there is a general travel advisory in respect of most persons but others are told it is a requirement. Many people gain money from the State or are supported by it in other ways, yet the State is not using an instrument or a threat of the withdrawal of payments to make them take what is advisory as a requirement. There is an inequality in treatment, which is a concern and something that I hope a report could address.
The Minister might speak on my next point, which relates to those who have cancelled holidays and are on the PUP or other jobseeker's payments. Will the Department provide them with all of the necessary paperwork in a timely way that allows them to seek refunds in respect of those cancelled holidays? Due to the travel advisory, if I cancelled my holiday to Italy - I will not have a holiday in Italy, as I will be in Galway - I would not be entitled to much because it was only advisory. That is the case for most of us. Were I on the PUP, however, and I cancelled that holiday because I was concerned by what I had seen this week or had already decided sensibly and out of good conscience not to go to Italy, would the Department give me useful paperwork because I was required by SI 242 to abide by the advisory? Bear in mind, this might be the last big outlay a family spends on itself for one, two or three years of extremely tight times ahead. It would be a practical and generous gesture if the Minister indicated that she would do everything she could to ensure that those to whom SI 242 applied - everyone on jobseeker's payments - and who obeyed this instrument and cancelled a holiday were supported.
The Minister is right. This would not apply to Italy because I would not need to cancel that holiday. Perhaps Spain or somewhere else would have been a better example.