thehighhorse
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The PUP Payments Panic

Image by Jan Vasek from Pixabay

The Government was entirely justified in withdrawing the pandemic payment for people who flout the advice not to travel abroad unless it is essential, never mind those leaving the country for good. The vast majority of people have willingly obeyed the advice not to holiday abroad. By allowing itself to be bullied into a U-turn by hysterical objections, the Coalition let down the vast majority of people who have shown a willingness to act in the common good even if that entails a financial sacrifice.

This was the trenchant view of political columnist, Stephen Collins in The Irish Times of 30 July on the Government’s handling of the disclosure that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (“PUP”) had been withdrawn from a number of recipients because they had travelled abroad. The headline over Collins’ piece summarises his broader theme: “Coalition is doomed unless it learns to fight back.”

One might respectfully demur that defending its decisions wouldn’t be such hard work if the Government made better decisions in the first place.

Let’s look more closely at the quality of the Government’s decision-making linking the PUP payment and foreign travel.

First, basic housekeeping. Who is eligible for the PUP payment? The primary eligible categories are those who have either lost their job or been temporarily laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were not already out of work when the pandemic hit us and some who are currently laid off because of its impact might reasonably expect to return eventually to the jobs they held pre-pandemic, as the economy continues to reopen.

After this story hit the headlines, the qualification that recipients must also be “genuinely seeking work”, was mysteriously appended to the government information website (gov.ie). This seems to jar with the concept of being laid off temporarily rather than indefinitely, but let that pass.

We are not going to address the overall coherence or consistency of the government’s suite of actions to reduce the risk of COVID spreading from incoming travellers, or the issues around the process which resulted in PUP payments being withdrawn for travel-related reasons — with one exception.

Reports of people’s experience from Liveline and Twitter suggest recipients became aware that their PUP was being withdrawn only when the money didn’t show up in their accounts. Even if permitted by law to do this, shooting first and asking questions later is a disrespectful way for the Department of Social Protection (DSP) to deal with anyone.

We should remember though that DSP has “form” in viewing its clients as subjects to be dictated to rather than citizens to be engaged with, suffering from skizophrenia about whether its top priority is to get payments to the right people or prevent them going to the wrong people. Remember that this is the outfit which was revealed in August 2017 to have unilaterally withheld 18 months’ payments to a pensioner in her 70s because of her refusal to apply for a Public Services Card. She had the temerity to ask for an explanation of the statutory basis on which she might be obliged to do so. It was this incident that caused the then Minister to indulge in linguistic contortions; describing the card as mandatory but not compulsory to apply for welfare services.

After the PUP withdrawal controversy broke the previous week-end, Minister Heather Humphries outlined her position to the Dáil the following Tuesday, 28 July. She sang from the same hymn sheet as Stephen Collins in her view of how PUP recipients travelling abroad should be treated.

The pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, was introduced as a solidarity payment at a time of unprecedented crisis for this country and to help people to adhere to public health advice. As part of that national solidarity we have seen displayed so strongly in recent months, we are asking people to adhere to the public health advice and to not travel abroad. If it is necessary for people to travel for essential reasons, such as in the case of a bereavement, an unwell family member or health reasons, it is possible to travel and payments will not be impacted.

The Minister accepted that the Department “has historically applied flexibility for up to two weeks absence from the State to recipients of jobseeker’s allowance and jobseeker’s benefit. But, the PUP was never subject to such flexibility and: “In the midst of a global pandemic and to support the continued adoption of public health advice, the Department has temporarily suspended the flexibility which applied to jobseeker’s allowance and jobseeker’s benefit…”

At that stage, the lady was not for turning.

The Minister has been imprecise about how many PUP recipients had payments stopped for temporary travel overseas. But we know it is a maximum of 250. In a press statement the day after her Dáil statement, the Minister said: “Of the 2,500 PUP claims that have been stopped since March, over ninety percent relate to people who were permanently leaving the country.”

In the Dáil, the Minister had said that 104 people travelling through Dublin Airport had their payments stopped since 7 July, but did not give a breakdown between temporary and permanent departures.

The Department later confirmed it had identified 85 cases of people whose payments had been stopped but may be entitled to it. The Department’s press release did not say how many of those stoppages were travel related or, if so, why they might be re-instated, perhaps because the claimants’ travel fell into the essential rather than non-essential category? But, if payments are restored to all of these, the universe of truly “delinquent” cases diminishes to a maximum of165.

In any event, the available information does not suggest an epidemic of PUP recipients undertaking temporary travel overseas for non-essential purposes. The Minister claimed that the stoppage of PUP payments arising from travel abroad had yielded total savings to the Exchequer of €20.5 million altogether. This implies possible savings of less than €2 million from docking payments to PUP recipients travelling abroad temporarily for non-essential purposes. More than the price of a good lunch, but not worth getting overly excited about.

To Mr. Collins’ chagrin, in the same press release the day following her robust Dáil statement, the Minister confirmed that eligibility for jobseekers’ and PUP payments would continue to apply for temporary, non-essential travel to green list countries.

That partial retreat and the arrival of the summer recess for the Dáil has taken the steam out of the controversy, for the time being.

My first thought was that this was the proverbial “balanced” outcome. By definition, non-essential travel is travel we don’t have to undertake at all and, if we do travel, the destination is entirely a matter of our own discretion. By travelling abroad rather than staying at home and by choosing a destination in a higher risk non-green destination, one is potentially exposing fellow citizens to higher risk on their return to Ireland. It seems fair that the State should be able to apply sanctions to discourage people from doing so — in much the same way that it is fair for the State to impose penalties on people who drive above the speed limit even if they don’t actually cause an accident, simply because of the higher risk of such behaviour to others as well as themselves.

But, my second thought swung the pendulum entirely in the opposite direction. I don’t think even the Minister’s “weaker” position, never mind hers and Mr. Collins’ original stronger one, stacks up.

As things stand, people in receipt of PUP or jobseekers’ payments lose these entitlements if they travel to non-green list countries for non-essential purposes. But the rest of us can travel to such places without suffering any penalty at all. Moreover, “the rest of us” comprises not just people like myself who don’t qualify for any state payments currently, but also people who do qualify for valuable benefits like the state contributory and non-contributory pensions (the cost of which are a much higher proportion of the DSP budget than unemployment-related payments).

Neither the Minister, nor Mr. Collins, nor indeed anybody else in public life, has suggested even in a whisper that recipients of state pensions should have these withdrawn or reduced while sojourning abroad in “bad” places or quarantining thereafter.

One might argue that pensions are a different category of state support to those arising from unemployment, whether temporary or long-term. Pensioners (especially recipients of the contributory pension) have clocked up decades of contributions to the state coffers before their well-earned retirement. But, is there any reason to suppose that PUP recipients who were working normally until last March or, indeed, beneficiaries of other jobseekers’ payments without work for longer, did not pay in full taxes due from their labour when they were working?

The distinctions in play here are based in lingering prejudice rather than justice. We reflexively presume “pensioners” to need and be unreservedly deserving of everything they get. And isn’t it only a pity that we can’t or don’t do more for them?

But reservations swirl around payments to people who are out of work. If not undeserving, they are at least less deserving. The emotional suspicion abounds that unemployment is always, to some degree, the unemployed person’s own fault; that there is always work to be found for those who look hard enough for it, and that the pandemic has provided an alibi for skiving. The stereotypical “pensioner” of media lore is fragile, vulnerable and skint because of working so hard for so long for so little. The unemployed are robustly able-bodied because they get so much rest. So, their entitlement to state support is less strict, more implicitly conditional, than that of pensioners and one for which they should be grateful rather than expect as their due.

The sanctions for any of us breaching the speed limit on the roads are based on the gravity of the offence, and apply equally to President and commoner. That is what should apply to foreign leisure travel too. The Government should either introduce legislation to penalise us all in the same way for “making unnecessary journeys” to the wrong places or otherwise stop picking on the PUP people.

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