Taoiseach Micheal Martin has denied the Government is “singling out” people on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) for going on foreign holidays.
The Government has cut the PUP to more than 100 people who travelled abroad following checks at airports.
Mr Martin has said people on the payment should be seeking work and Government advice states people should avoid non-essential travel abroad.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has said the Government’s travel advice is “confused” and not a legal requirement.
“You have taken it on yourselves to send out officials to our airports seeking out people on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and who have decided with their best judgement to travel. You’re singling out one section of our population without notice or warning,” she said.
Mr Martin said the vast majority of people who had their PUP cut off following airport inspections were not returning to Ireland.
“The vast majority of these cases are people who were leaving the country, they were not holidaymakers and were leaving the country on a permanent basis,” he added.
“There is no agenda here in terms of the PUP or penalising any one sector as opposed to the other.”
He said the Government was committed to helping people who have lost their jobs and the travel advice is clear regarding non-essential travel abroad.
“The Government is keeping this payment going until March, albeit at different levels,” he said. “The Government have been anxious to help people who are unemployed as a result of the pandemic.
“The deputy is well aware that Department of Social Protection inspectors carry out inspections at ports and airports. The purpose of these checks has always been to check that social welfare payments are being paid to people residing in the State.”
Earlier, a Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) executive said he was not aware of social welfare inspectors questioning passengers at Dublin Airport.
The issue of passenger information and who has access to it was raised multiple times during a hearing of the Dail’s Covid-19 Committee.
Dublin Airport and Cork Airport are not involved in the collection of any information in relation to people's PPS numbers or anything in relation to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment or any similar informationRay Gray, Dublin Airport Authority
Ray Gray, chief financial officer at DAA, told the committee that “he personally” was not aware of Department of Social Protection officials or welfare inspectors questioning passengers at Dublin Airport.
He said: “My awareness is from things that I have heard in the media in the last number of days. I have no personal or professional information regarding that.
“Dublin Airport and Cork Airport are not involved in the collection of any information in relation to people’s PPS numbers or anything in relation to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment or any similar information.
“That information might be obtained at the airport by other authorities.”
He said there are various State agencies, including customs and Garda officers, at the airport and the DAA has no oversight of their activities.
Mr Gray said: “I have no personal or professional information regarding who collects this data on passengers.”
Asked if he knew when passengers were checked at airports to see if they are on the PUP, he said: “Regrettably deputy, I am unable to assist you with your inquiry in this regard… if there is information that is being collected then those parties that are collecting the information, be it through the State or other parties that operate at airports.”
Asked who collects data such as the pandemic unemployment payment, on passengers, Ray Gray of the Dublin Airport Authority said - "The information that is being collected at airports is not being collected by the DAA. There are a series of stage agencies operating at airports...— Ãine McMahon (@AineMcMahon) July 28, 2020
Mr Gray was pressed by a number of TDs about the practice.
He said the DAA does not police the collection of data by other organisations.
Mr Gray added: “The information that is being collected at airports, I have said categorically, is not being collected by the DAA. There are a series of State agencies operating at airports.
“They operate under their mandate and arrangements and do not require specific permission from us to operate nor indeed do they have to inform us of their activities and that is regrettably why I am unable to be more helpful to the committee this morning.”
Committee chairman Michael McNamara called on the DAA to clarify whether it was aware that Department of Social Protection officials were operating in the company’s airports within the next 48 hours.
The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) organisation said the decision to stop the payments was not legal.
Chief executive Eilis Barry said: “Our legal team lead by FLAC’s managing solicitor, Sinead Lucey, has examined the relevant legislative provisions, and our assessment of the department’s policy, based on the circular, is that while legislation may allow for this suspension in relation to Jobseekers Benefit, it does not go so far as to allow the department sweeping powers to suspend or close other payments that people may receive – including Covid PUP.”