The recurrence of issues that we have experienced is the basis for the report. We have encountered during the past two years an increase in the number of returned Irish emigrants who have been disallowed social welfare claims based on the habitual residence condition. The habitual residence condition is an assessment that was introduced in the European Union in 2004 that must be satisfied for an individual to be eligible for most non-contributory social welfare payments in Ireland. It requires an applicant to show that he or she has a strong connection to Ireland and that it is their home again. It is not based on nationality and is therefore applicable to both Irish and non-Irish citizens. The operational guidelines are adopted by deciding officers in the Department to assess applications with regard to all relevant conditions. There are five factors that are considered by deciding officers when assessing if a person is habitually resident: first, the main centre of interest; second, the length and continuity of residence; third, the length and purpose of any absence from Ireland; fourth, the nature and pattern of employment; and fifth, the future intention to live in Ireland as it appears from all the circumstances.
These have been amended and updated during the past few years, in particular, a specific provision was introduced in 2010 which particularly affects returned Irish emigrants. It states: “A person who had previously been habitually resident in the State and who moved to live and work in another country and then resumes his/her long-term residence in the State may be regarded as being habitually resident immediately on his/her return to the State.”
How does this affect returning emigrants? Irish emigrants who were previously resident in Ireland should be found habitually resident immediately upon return to Ireland, once they can demonstrate that they are resuming their residence. The interpretation and appropriate application of this guideline is what we are concerned with here. We have seen evidence of varying degrees of inconsistencies in the application of the HRC assessment. In the majority of these cases, the individuals are experiencing very vulnerable situations such as homelessness or risk of homelessness, with no income or support networks. Additionally some have children or further health and social care support needs.
On a daily basis, we provide information on access to social welfare and the HRC assessment criteria to all clients who have recently returned to Ireland or are planning to return. We have seen an increase in the number of queries relating to HRC within recent years. We dealt with more than 280 queries in 2017 and worked directly on 18 cases of HRC-based disallowed claims. We submitted 12 cases to the social welfare appeals office and every case was successfully overturned. Two thirds of these cases came from dual citizens who were either born here to non-Irish parents or who naturalised as adults, some of whom were forced to return in crisis from conflict zone areas such as Libya and Sudan on the advice of Irish consular authorities.
Our report illustrates some of the issues in case studies we have dealt with. All these cases concerned individuals experiencing very vulnerable circumstances who had to wait on average five to nine months for their cases to return and to access their entitlements. The long delay and stress involved had a significant adverse impact on them and their welfare. To supplement our case studies and our direct work in the service, we conducted new research through an online survey to capture the experience of other individuals who have been disallowed a claim based on HRC on their return. A total of 11 people, that is, half of those surveyed, told us they had been refused based on the HRC, mainly for jobseeker's allowance. These were mainly people looking for work on their return. Only two of them had made an appeal against the decision and were still awaiting an outcome. All these individuals may have been left with very limited options and were possibly put in quite a vulnerable situation. They told us they felt the process was "intimidating", "demeaning" and "humiliating" and they were made to feel guilty. These expressions echoed comments from respondents in a broader survey which we carried out last year with 400 returned emigrants in our report "Home for Good?". More than 100 people gave us negative comments on their experiences of access to social welfare payments on return. Furthermore, we included in the report contributions from other emigrant support organisations across the world on the experiences of emigrants who are planning to return with urgent support needs. They talk about misconceptions among Irish emigrants of their rights and entitlements. They perceive these misconceptions as caused by inaccessible information on access to entitlements, particularly in respect of clarity surrounding the HRC assessment. They perceive the lack of information and misconceptions on the HRC to be actively deterring emigrants from returning to Ireland on the presumption that they may not be able to access a safety net of income while they re-establish their employment in Ireland.
Our recommendations circle around two areas and functions of the Department. I will quickly go through the recommendations in respect of the administrative function. We ask the Department to ensure appropriate and consistent application of the guidelines for the HRC for returning emigrants as resuming previous residence through updated and ongoing training and supervision for deciding officers; to provide a user-friendly bespoke guide to the HRC for returning emigrants on the website and to regularly update it; and to introduce a mechanism, such as a declaration form or an option for inclusion in the current HRC application form, not dependent on proof of secured housing, that returning emigrants can confirm that they have returned to reside in the State on a permanent basis. Figures released by the Department on claims disallowed on the HRC currently do not include a breakdown of those that were referred to the Social Welfare Appeals Office. In our experience, all the cases with which we have assisted have been overturned on appeal and thus are recorded as awarded claims. We recommend that published figures reflect all cases that have been referred to the appeals office. This will allow us to identify some problems at the initial application stage.
In respect of the customer service function, we ask the Department to provide clarity on required documents and evidence for social welfare claims in all forms of communication with returned emigrants, including the HRC leaflets, website and communications by email and phone and in person; to ensure referral of returned emigrants to the community welfare service for basic supplementary welfare allowance, as many people are unaware of this, a decision made in advance of the primary claim, as per the guidelines, and the exercise of appropriate discretion in the issuance of exceptional needs payments where needed in vulnerable circumstances; and to ensure referral of returned emigrants to the appeals process and to other support services for further support needs, such as our service, Safe Home Ireland and local services such as citizens information centres.
I thank the committee for its interest in this matter. We ask that members consider the issues raised and support the recommendations put forward to the Department to ensure that returned emigrants are not disproportionately affected by the HRC or at a disadvantage solely due to the fact that they have lived abroad. This commitment would be in line with the aims of Ireland's diaspora policy, as Mr. King mentioned, supported by the Minister of State for diaspora affairs, to facilitate the return of Irish emigrants in a recovering economy.