From top: Dublin Airport; Roman Shortall whose children’s benefit payments were cut after he and his wife and their two children travelled to her home country of Romania to visit a terminally ill relative
Legal executive Roman Shortall was interviewed by Katie Hannon on RTÉ’s Liveline.
On June 13, Roman was boarding a flight at Dublin Airport for Romania, with his wife and two children, when they were approached and questioned by social welfare inspectors and gardai.
They were travelling to Romania for three weeks to visit a terminally ill relative. Romania is the home country of Roman’s wife who is now a naturalised Irish citizen.
When the family returned, they learned that his wife’s child benefit payment had been cut.
The details of this experience, as outlined by Roman to Liveline, were later referred to by numerous TDs in the Dáil last night as an ongoing debate continued over the separate but related issue of cuts to PUP and Jobseeker’s Benefit payment – a debate which continued as the Dáil discussed the Social Welfare (Covid-19) Amendment Bill which has now passed on to the Seanad.
It should be made clear that Roman was, and is not, in receipt of either the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment or Jobseeker’s Benefit or Allowance when he was questioned by social welfare inspectors and gardai in Dublin Airport on June 13.
Roman explained to Ms Hannon:
“On the 13th of June, when I was attending, I attended Dublin Airport with my spouse and two children, we had a flight reservation and basically we went through all the security procedures with the bags, etc, checked in and we got to the boarding gate. And we noticed that there were two gardai aradai and two social welfare inspectors operating a check point in front of the boarding gate.
“So this was just before where you show your passport and boarding pass to board the plane. I got to the checkpoint and I was asked by a social welfare inspector for my PPS number and identification.
“Firstly, I asked her to identity herself, which she did, she showed me her airside pass. I then advised her that if she wants to request my personal details, she’d have to have reasonable grounds to suspect that I was contravening social welfare legislation.
“I’d be familiar from my work with social welfare legislation and I asked her what her reasonable grounds were for requesting these details and she kind of dismissed what I said, she kind of seemed to be amused by it and she advised me that leaving the State was reasonable grounds to request the information.
“I advised her then this was not a reasonable grounds and I refused to provide the information and documentation that she requested and I also advised her that my spouse would not provide her PPSN or her identification either. She said that was fine and, as I proceeded to the boarding gate, I noticed two uniformed gardai approaching us. They had followed us from behind. They were at the checkpoint as well.
“They stood in front of us, blocked our path. The male garda asked me for my passport for the purposes of a passport check, those were the words that he used. At this stage I presumed that he was an immigration officer and was exercising his powers under the Immigration Act so I asked him, as well, to show me his identification and to show me his Garda warrant card.
“I handed over my passport, as did my spouse. He then began to write down my name and date of birth on some sort of form and I advised him that I didn’t consent to him processing my data like that and said he was entitled to take these details. And then I asked as well why nobody else was asked to provide their passports for immigration purposes…because I had seen other people that were asked for ID and PPS numbers by the inspectors. There was no, it wasn’t ‘passport check’, they weren’t using words like that. But when I refused to provide my PPSN and ID, suddenly it became a passport check.”
“I had some discussions with them about exactly what they were doing and the female garda then advised me that they weren’t immigration officers but that they were seconded to the Special Investigation Unit of the Department of Social Protection, and that they were, basically they were gardai but they were also social welfare inspectors under Section 250 of the [Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005] Act and that was it then.
“I felt I was treated like some sort of a criminal in front of my kids. I didn’t like how I was treated, I didn’t like having my path blocked when I was going about my lawful business, boarding a flight. I wasn’t committing any crime.”
Roman said there was 70 to 80 people on board the flight. He added that every single one of the passengers, from what he could see and he was the last to board, was asked by the inspectors for their details and they all complied except him.
During the interview, Ms Hannon read out a statement from the Department of Employment and Social Protection. Roman responded:
“Under Section 250 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 which they have referred to in a previous statement, that’s Section 250, subsection 16, they are entiled to request the information where they have reasonable grounds to believe that there has been a contravention of the act.
“Now, what that means is that if they believe, if they are investigating someone, they follow them to the airport and say ‘that’s Joe Bloggs’, he’s claiming such and such a payment, then they could ask him for his PPS number and ID. But they can’t operate blanket checkpoints at the airport because there’s no legal basis to do so. They must have reasonable grounds on an individual basis to suspect that someone has contravened the act….essentially they were fishing for information but they’ve no legal basis to do that.”
“When we returned, my wife’s child benefit payment which is a payment that every person in the State receives who’s lawfully resident here and has children, the universal payment…it didn’t go in to our bank account account. €280 per month goes into everyone’s account on the first Tuesday of the month. It didn’t go in and I knew straight away why it didn’t go in.
“I knew from other stories that I’ve heard that that Special Investigations Unit sent the information to child benefit and they stopped the payment. So I rang up and I knew what the answer was going to be and that was that we had left the State and that we were obliged to inform child benefit that we had left the State.”
“I said to the Deciding Officer on the phone, first of all, you didn’t notify us of your decision which they’re obliged to do…they have to notify you of the making of the decision, they have to send a natural justice letter before that to advise you that they’re proposing to make a negative decision on your claim and give you an opportunity to make submissions in relation to that.”
“[After inquiring about the non-payment] They said that you were, I’m trying to remember the word they used, you were identified leaving the State on the 13th of June and we suspended your payments because we received notification from the Special Investigation Unit that you left the State and you’re obliged to inform us when you leave the State.
“And I told the Deciding Officer, there’s not a single person in this country who informs child benefit that they’re going abroad and nor do they have to. There’s no disqualification from receiving child benefit while you’re abroad for a holiday…”
“From what I’ve heard and I’ve actually submitted a Freedom of Information request to get this information. From what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen, because there were other flights leaving there to places like France, etc, I believe that they’re deliberately targeting flights where there is going to be a big immigrant population on those flights such as Poland, Romania, Brazil, places like that that they’re deliberately targeting those flights because they’re presuming that they’re, I suppose, they’re hoping that they’ll catch people, non-nationals, who are going back home or for whatever reason.”
“I think the problem is and this is no disrespect to any journalist out there, they’re not asking the right question and maybe it’s because they don’t know what’s happening at the airport. But what they need to ask is, this is the question: What is the legal basis for operating a checkpoint at the airport and asking every single person for their PPS number. Where does it say under Section 250 [of Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005] that you can just ask random people for their PPS numbers. The answer is it doesn’t. They’re [Government] are not answering the question. They’re semi-answering the question. They’re saying we have these powers, of course they have those powers – where they have reasonable grounds to suspect someone has contravened the act.”
Not long after Roman spoke on Liveline, his specific question was asked by Social Democrats TD Roisin Shortall of the Taoiseach Micheál Martin in the Dáil.
“Can the Taoiseach tell us what is the legal basis on which social welfare inspectors and gardaí are operating checkpoints at Dublin Airport for the purpose of identifying social welfare recipients and child benefit recipients in order to cut their payments? Can he tell us the precise legal powers under which they are taking this action?
“There is a power to stop people if there are reasonable grounds to believe they are engaged in fraud or whatever, but in the absence of knowledge of the people being stopped in these instances – their names and identities – it is hard to know what are the reasonable grounds for doing so. What exactly are the legal powers that are being used for operating these checkpoints?”
In his response, Mr Martin said:
“They have had legal powers to carry out those checks as part of the ongoing control and compliance work they are engaged in. The legal basis for the control and compliance checks is section 250 (16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. I understand that amendment was introduced by the then Minister, Joan Burton.
“Since March 2020, 2,000 pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, claims have been closed – that is according to the note I have; it could be higher than that – as a result of checks carried out at Dublin Airport. I am told by the Department that the vast majority of the PUP cases stopped as a result of this work relate to individuals leaving the country who are not holidaymakers but are leaving on a permanent basis. If a person returns to Ireland, it is open to him or her to reapply for the PUP. Since 7 July, 104 PUP recipients and 44 jobseekers have been stopped.”
Later, Labour TD Sean Sherlock told the Dail:
“We do not know how the Department is accessing and processing all this information. From anecdotal reports, it appears people are not being told when stopped that this is for social welfare control. Under the law, a social welfare inspector accompanied by a garda or a garda acting for the Department must have reasonable grounds for believing that there has been a contravention of the Act. The anecdotal evidence we have heard on various radio shows today from people who have been stopped does not seem to reflect the grounds laid out in the law.
“From where are the data for checking people leaving the country coming? Is it on the basis of Garda checks at the airport? What are the reasonable grounds being used? Gardaí are asking people for their names, addresses and PPS numbers, but not telling them it is for the purpose of social welfare checks. What are the reasonable grounds for believing there has been a contravention? The people are demanding that these questions be answered.”
The Minister for Employment and Social Protection Heather Humphreys later told the Dáil that, since March 13, the department had stopped payments to some 2,500 PUP recipients – 2,000 of which related to Dublin Airport and 500 to “other ports and airports”.
Of these, she said:
“Had these claims not been stopped, the Department might have incurred additional expenditure of €20.5 million. That would have meant it would have cost taxpayers €20.5 million in payments to people not entitled to receive those payments. The majority of the people concerned are not going on holidays; they are leaving the country, and once recipients live outside of the country, they are not entitled to these payments.
“A small number of people may have had to leave the country for various reasons and have since returned. We have heard many stories tonight about people who had to leave to visit a sick relative or for some family emergency. People who feel they were treated wrongly can request a review. As Deputies will be aware, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has an appeals mechanism throughout its processes to which anybody is entitled to apply.”
Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry also raised Roman’s case and asked the department to effectively spell out the reasonable grounds that gardai or social welfare inspectors use to approach someone. He said:
“In the interview, the gentleman [Roman] in question said that the Department, supported by the Garda, is targeting certain flights, such as those to Romania or Poland. That amounts to ethnic or racial profiling, which is totally wrong.
“If we must have reasonable grounds to ask people for their details, the Department must establish and define what reasonable grounds are. Officials cannot simply decide to check everyone getting on a flight to Romania because they have a prejudiced view of Romanians and think they may be cheating the system. That is fundamentally wrong and is not the sort of ethos captured under our Constitution or, indeed, the Proclamation.
“Statements from the Department were also read out on that radio show, which fell a good bit short of the sort of explanations I would have expected. I gather similar revelations were being broadcast in the media all week, but I just happened to hear that particular gentleman’s story.
“When he contacted the Department and asked about the child benefit, he was told he was not allowed to get child benefit because he left the country. My oldest child is 16 years old and we have been getting child benefit all his life. Before Covid, we were blessed enough to be able to go on holidays abroad most years, though not every year. I do not remember anybody ever taking issue with us getting the child benefit payment, and nor should they have.”
Ms Humphreys later said:
“The DAA does not pass travel information to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The Department does not have access to travel data, nor does it have access to passenger locator forms from any airport or port and it does not receive travel information from the Department of Justice and Equality.
“As part of its normal control work, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection carries out compliance inspections at ports and airports throughout the course of the year. Since 2012, social welfare inspectors have had legal powers to carry out these checks as part of the ongoing control and compliance work in which they engage. The legal basis for the control and compliance checks is section 250(16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012.
“These checks are carried out as certain social welfare payments are only paid to people residing in the State. These compliance checks involve inspectors speaking directly with passengers and any information gathered is used only for the purpose for which it is gathered. Social welfare inspectors have legal powers under social welfare legislation to ask for PPS numbers. Social welfare inspectors have to be approved by the DAA to work in the airport and all have clearance from the authority to work there. They all have Dublin Airport identity cards and Garda vetting is part of the process of obtaining an identity card. Inspectors must also undergo security awareness training.”
Ultimately, as of last night, Roman’s question about reasonable grounds remained unanswered.
Meanwhile, yesterday morning, at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, chief financial officer at the Dublin Airport Authority Ray Gray told the committee that he is personally not aware of Department of Social Protection officials questioning passengers at Dublin Airport.
After repeating this several times to various deputies, chair of the committee Independent TD Michael McNamara told him: “You’re here not in a personal capacity but as a representative of Dublin Airport Authority. Does DAA have knowledge of what the Department of Social Protection, what data they’re gathering and whether they’re actively present on the campus of Dublin Airport collecting data or not?”
Mr Gray was just about to repeat that he had no personal knowledge, when Mr McNamara interrupted and said:
“I’m not asking you, Dublin, I mean surely you expected that this question, I’d expect that you didn’t adopt a ‘see no evil, do no evil, hear no evil’ approach. You knew that this question was going to be asked, coming here today. It was in the news all weekend. I’m not asking you what you know, what Dublin Airport Authority knows and can you come back to us within 48 hours with an answer about what Dublin Airport Authority knows, not what you know, or don’t know or what you choose to find out or not find out.”
Mr Gray said he’d be “very happy” to come back to the committee with this information.
Listen back in full here
Dáil transcript via Oireachtas.ie