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Irish government moves to withdraw pandemic supports

11 August 2020

Despite still being in the midst of a pandemic - and also facing into a severe economic recession - the Irish government is moving to withdraw some of the financial supports it had introduced just a few months earlier.

This came to public attention recently in the controversy over people going on holiday having their benefit payments stopped. Most of these cases centred on people who were in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) - the enhanced social security benefit introduced to support workers whose employment was effectively paused due to the impact of the global pandemic.

Examples of people having their benefits stopped included:

Ciaran Cooney who had his income support stopped for six weeks after his details were taken by two gardai at Dublin Airport as part of an "immigration check."
Roman Shorthall who, with his wife and two children, travelled to Romania on June 13th via Dublin airport. They passed through a checkpoint at their boarding gate where two Gardai and two social welfare inspectors were stopping each passenger. He said he showed a garda his passport. On their return from Romania their child benefit was stopped.
Another woman - who wished to remain anonymous - claimed she had her PUP payment withdrawn even though she did not leave the State. She was booked on a Cork to Roscoff ferry on July 18th. Despite deciding not to travel she was contacted by a welfare officer on July 23rd to be told that she no longer met the eligibility for the scheme. “The reason for this determination is that - you have left the State on 18/7/20,” the welfare officer stated.
What these stories - along with many others - highlight are the underhand and draconian methods that are being employed by the state to penalise people on benefits. One element of this is the overnight or unannounced changes made to eligibility criteria or regulations. In relation to the PUP this involved adding a condition that recipients have to be “actively seeking work”. This is despite the fact that people claiming this benefit are not classified as unemployed. Indeed, in the legislation that introduced the PUP, it was made explicit that people on this benefit were not being made unemployed and as a consequence did not qualify for redundancy. The assumption was that people claiming the benefit would resume work with their current employer once the economy had recovered.

Another change that caught people out was the suspension of the normal two week holiday period for jobseekers. This was put down to travel restrictions introduced as a result of the pandemic. However, it was at odds with travel advice from the government that allows for holiday travel to countries that are considered to be low risk.

The most intrusive aspect of this were the checks carried out at ports and airports. The Department for Social Protection claimed that checks involving inspectors speaking directly to passengers are allowed under legislation passed in 2005 and 2012. Yet that legislation allows for checks to be carried out only where there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that fraud has occurred, not the blanket targeting of travellers that was reported. There are also suspicions - aroused by stories such as the one cited above - that the government itself was breaching data protection laws by harvesting information directly from the operators of ports and airports.

This draconian approach towards benefit claimants stands in stark contrast to the accommodating approach taken to wealthy tax exiles. Recently the Revenue quietly announced that tax exiles can stay in Ireland for as long as they have to, due to the pandemic. These new regulations have been in effect since April. Up to that point, Irish billionaires like John Magnier and Dermot Desmond — who are both tax-resident in Switzerland — could only spend up to 183 days in Ireland in any given year. However, Revenue has issued new “guidance” which allows individuals to extend their stay in the state and not be regarded present for tax residence purposes.

The public uproar over the punitive measures taken against holiday makers forced the government into a rapid u-turn, with the minister announcing that the two week period would be reinstated and that any deducted benefits payments would be restored. However, the new “actively seeking work condition” for the PUP was retained. Indeed, the government went even further by passing new legislation that included this condition as well as setting a timetable for the expiry of the benefit and cuts to the rates of payments.

The scheme has been extended until April next year but payments will be cut from €350 to €203 per week from September onwards and will also be closed to new applicants. From April 1st 2021 the remaining claimants will be required to apply for the standard Jobseekers’ Allowance and the PUP scheme will be closed. Another wage support scheme - the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) - for people still in employment but having having their wages supplemented - has also been cut to €203 a week. Currently the incomes of around 700,000 workers are being supported by these schemes.

Another roll back of the emergency measures to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic has taken place in the housing sector. This is contained within the Residential Tenancies & Valuations Bill which was introduced just before the emergency ban on evictions and rent increases was due to expire on August 1st. The earliest tenants can now be evicted is January 11th, 2021. While this was presented as a extension of the protections for renters the effect of the legislation will be to remove protections for many. In contrast to the previous blanket ban on evictions its provisions will only cover people unable to pay their rent because of the Covid-19 pandemic if they have made a declaration to the Residential Tenancies Board. It also allows landlords to resume evictions on the grounds of sale, use or refurbishment which was one of the major causes of evictions into homelessness prior to the pandemic.

Rhetorical attacks on public sector workers have also been stepped up. An example of this was the claim by Fianna Fail's Marc McSharry that workers in “many elements of our State agencies, Government departments and local authorities" were opportunistically using the crisis “to do nothing”.

All of this - the measures to cut back welfare supports and the rhetoric around people sponging off the state - foreshadow the attacks against the working class that will be coming in the near future. It is also an implicit admission by the Irish government that the economy is heading for a prolonged recession rather than a rapid recovery. In this scenario the priority for the capitalist class will be to recover costs and restore profitability. That requires not just a return to the status quo but a further offensive against workers on wages and workplace conditions and on general living standards. The austerity programme that Irish people are living under - and have been living under for the last decade - will be intensified. Indeed, it is the central tenet of the recovery plan for the whole of the EU.

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