FLAC calls for review of Department of Social Protection activity at airports following DPC statement
30 July 2020
FLAC is very concerned by the publication of a statement by the Data Protection Commission (DPC) today clarifying that the Department of Social Protection has been operating a blanket policy of questioning passengers boarding certain flights out of the country over the last few months.
FLAC Chief Executive Eilis Barry said this afternoon,
“The statement of the DPC only deepens FLAC’s concerns in relation to the activities of the Department of Social Protection at airports. Earlier this week, FLAC wrote to the Minister in relation to our concerns around the Department’s policies concerning the eligibility for social welfare payments during absences from the State. That letter, and the attached legal analysis prepared by FLAC’s legal team, led by Managing Solicitor Sinéad Lucey, highlighted the limits on the investigative powers of agents of the Department at ports and airports. What has emerged today, on foot of the DPC statement, makes evident that the Department operated under the assumption that all recipients of social welfare were prohibited from travel abroad, which our analysis shows was simply not correct. In turn this led to a blanket policy of questioning at the airport. The primary legislation underpinning social welfare payments and eligibility for the Covid-19 PUP payment, and social welfare investigations seem to have simply been ignored.”
FLAC particularly welcomed the fact that the DPC has raised concerns in relation to a policy of questioning all passengers during certain periods or boarding certain flights.
FLAC Managing Solicitor, Sinead Lucey stated, “The powers of Social Welfare Inspectors to question passengers at airports are prescribed by primary legislation. The Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act 2005 provides that a Social Welfare Inspector must have ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that there has been some contravention of social welfare law before they may approach a passenger at the airport and make enquiries. The mere presence of a person at the airport is not sufficient grounds for them to be questioned about a social welfare payment. In addition it should also be noted that anyone who is subject to such questioning has a right to fair procedures before any decision is taken by the Department on foot of such questioning. Any information obtained by the Department from passengers at the airport, in circumstances where Social Welfare Inspectors have acted in excess of their powers in obtaining the information, may mean that any decision taken by the Department in relation to a person’s entitlement for social welfare on foot of receiving the information is open to challenge.”
Ms Eilis Barry stated, “It is now incumbent on the Minister to instigate a review into the activities of Social Welfare Inspectors at airports and to ensure that Departmental policy properly reflects the limited powers that are available to agents of the Department at ports and airports. The Department should also review any cases where persons’ entitlements to social welfare payments have been suspended on foot of questioning at the airport, in circumstances where that questioning may have been conducted in a manner contrary to what is allowed under the law”.
FLAC has been receiving many calls on this issue and one of the key problems is that people are not aware of their rights and obligations regarding Social Welfare supports during Covid-19.
Notes to Editor
1. FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is an Irish human rights organisation, which exists to promote equal access to justice. As an NGO, FLAC relies on a combination of statutory funding, contributions from the legal professions and donations from individuals and grant-making foundations to support its work.
2. FLAC offers basic legal information through its telephone information line (1890 350 250). Free legal advice is available from volunteer lawyers through a countrywide network of advice clinics (these clinics are currently conducted over the phone) – more at www.flac.ie/help/. FLAC provides legal representation in a small number of cases in the public interest. FLAC provides legal advice directly to members of both the Roma Community and The Irish Traveller Community via specialist legal clinics. FLAC engages in policy work in areas of law that most impact on disadvantaged groups and including consumer credit, personal debt, and fairness in social welfare law, public interest law and civil legal aid. It operates the public interest law project PILA.
3. FLAC Note re Social Welfare (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2020 https://www.flac.ie/publications/flac-note-re-social-welfare-covid19-amendment-bill/
4. FLAC sent a letter, on 28 July 2020, to Minister Humphreys detailing our concerns with the sanctions placed on Social Welfare Recipients travelling abroad. This letter is available on our website at https://www.flac.ie/publications/flac-letter-to-minister-humphreys/
5. The note of our legal team’s advices re Circular 35 20 is available online at https://www.flac.ie/publications/flac-note-re-circular-35-20/