Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection díospóireacht -
Thursday, 28 Jun 2018

Crosscare Emigrant Support Service: Discussion

I welcome the following representatives from Crosscare, Ms Danielle McLaughlin, policy officer, Mr. Richard King, project Manager and Ms Judy McAvoy, information and advocacy officer. I will invite the witnesses to make their presentation and then members will then have an opportunity to put questions to them.

I wish to draw to the attention of witnesses the fact that by virtue by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting their mobile phones are turned off completely or switched to airplane mode.

I understand that Ms McLaughlin will make the opening statement.

Ms Danielle McLaughlin

Chairman, Mr. Richard King will start and then I will follow.

The witnesses can share the time. Colleagues will have a number of questions.

Mr. Richard King

I thank the Chairman and members for meeting us today. We are part of Crosscare. Crosscare is a social support agency of the Dublin Catholic archdiocese which has supported Irish emigrants for over 75 years. We were officially established as Emigrant Advice in 1987, and about ten years ago changed our name to Crosscare Migrant Project and we have continued to support both those leaving and coming home. We are here to discuss the findings of our report "One Hundred Thousand Welcomes?". We present this report as a contribution to the implementation of Ireland’s diaspora policy, in particular the aim to reduce barriers for returning emigrants.

In the past few years the discourse around returning home has begun to identify the experience as one of ‘re-emigration’ – a very demanding move, as significant as leaving the country, despite the fact that emigrants are "coming home". We found that returning emigrants can face many barriers, and we have a great deal of experience in this area. One of the main barriers we will speak on today is the issue of accessing social protection and safety nets for those who need them on their return. The major issue for them is the habitual residence condition, HRC.

Our work is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, specifically the emigrant support programme. We aim to provide a quality information and advocacy service in particular to those who are vulnerable or marginalised. Through our engagement with the people who use our service, we aim to effect change in the policies that affect migrants and returning emigrants. We have worked extensively for changes to the HRC guidelines for more than ten years. We made a presentation to the committee in 2008. Changes were implemented at that stage that made quite a difference for people returning and we saw major improvements. However in the past couple of years, issues are beginning to affect people who are returning now. This is important in the context of the wave of people returning. More than 105,000 Irish emigrants have returned home in the past four years. The issue will start affecting more people and we have seen this as a growing trend. The report presents an overview and is evidence based. We hope it will be useful to the Department and to the committee in its role of addressing some of the inconsistencies we have seen in the decision making.

I will now hand over to my colleague, Ms McLaughlin, who has done all the hard work and can talk members through the technical and complex bits.

Ms Danielle McLaughlin

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.

I thank Ms McLaughlin. I will ask one general question and then go to my colleagues. The rules and regulations concerning habitual residency are not the problem; it is their interpretation and implementation. The witnesses are dealing with this as a national organisation. Are they seeing regional differences in this?

Ms Judy McAvoy

Yes. As Mr. King explained, I do the information and advocacy work with the clients face to face. I find in my work that deciding officers in more rural areas sometimes do not see as many people returning home and their understanding of the rules can sometimes be a little patchy. This is not to say that deciding officers in Dublin do not have the same issues. I have been in touch with many deciding officers who really want to help someone with whom I am in touch. I have spoken to them on the phone and they have said they really would like to award a certain entitlement but they cite habitual residence and the two-year rule. Some people think there is still a two-year rule. There is not. Sometimes there is a fixation on one particular factor out of the five, such as time away, perhaps. To come back to the Chairman's question, this does seem to happen a little more in rural areas. In places such as the homeless persons unit in Dublin, we do not really tend to have as many issues now as we once did.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. Theirs is an excellent piece of work and long overdue. It is an issue in respect of which I get people coming to my constituency offices expressing concern and frustration at how their cases are being handled and in many ways stymied. This is all reflected in the experiences highlighted in Crosscare's submission. Cases similar to all these have come through my constituency offices.

Another issue that has presented itself, albeit not in huge numbers, is the breakdown of relationships whereby one party has had to return home. This has presented itself as a huge challenge. People try to access various information, whether bank statements or information on property they may have been renting or may own. Some deciding officers really do not know what to do and essentially put a red line through it and force that person then to go through a lengthy appeal process. At the same time, there is no referral to community welfare officers or anything like that. It is a real problem. However, the witnesses highlight in their submission that all of the 12 cases they have represented that have gone to appeal have been overturned. This in itself sets off alarm bells that many deciding officers' interpretation in adjudicating on these cases is really not at the level it should be. In many cases they probably do not have the knowledge or the know-how. I see this even with disability allowance payments and other areas. The easy option is just to put a red line through it and let the applicant then go through a lengthy appeal process. The fact that these 12 cases which the witnesses represented were all successful just highlights this.

The recommendations the witnesses have put forward are all common sense and very basic, and I agree with every one of them. This committee has heard evidence on exceptional needs payments and community welfare officers and the huge levels of discretion they have in offices right across the State. This is posing problems. There does not seem to be one set of criteria from which they all work. There are huge anomalies and issues here in that one community welfare officer will grant something and another will not, and the two could be identical cases.

I welcome the report. As I said, they are all basic recommendations, and it is something we as a committee need to look at. There is a big push to try to get people back home, but there are problems actually doing so, which this report highlights.

There are problems which make it difficult to come home, and this highlights them. We need to cut through the red tape and make it easier for people to come home.

An applicant must show that he or she has a strong connection to Ireland. How does one go about showing that one has such a connection?

Ms Judy McAvoy

The answer to that question is as broad as it is long, to be honest. There are questions on the form which ask an applicant to describe any connection that he or she has with Ireland. This might include membership of a group or something of that nature. When I meet an applicant, I ask if he or she is a member of a library, if he or she is registered to vote, if he or she has family here or if he or she has a letter from family saying that he or she used to holiday here. It can be absolutely anything. The same is true when it comes to showing future intention to remain. It is very broad. That is good and bad. It is great for appeals but, at the initial stage, it is very difficult to get a person to present all of that evidence. I do not like to use the term "wishy-washy", but it applies here to a certain degree. It is very hard to get concrete proof that someone has a strong connection to the country, other than the fact that he or she is Irish and has returned here.

I thank our guests for the presentation and the report. I also thank them for highlighting the very important issues in this area. I am afraid I have to leave to attend a meeting on climate change, a matter on which I will be tabling a Bill next week. I apologise that I will have to leave but I will ask a couple of questions before I do so.

That 109,000 people have returned to Ireland in the last four years is very good news for us. There is a shortage of labour in the hospitality industry. There is a shortage of chefs. There are also shortages of nurses, teachers and construction industry workers. One would think that the Government would be saying "Céad míle fáilte" and welcoming those people back with open arms rather than putting obstacles in their way by means of these kind of mechanisms. One such obstacle I have come across is that many young people who left when the economy collapsed in 2009 and 2010 and who have returned are trying to work and educate themselves. When they go to college, however, they are not entitled to have their fees paid, even though this will be the first time many of them have attended third level. Can the witness comment on that and indicate if there is something we can do to address it? This is a big issue that young people are facing. The Government, instead of making obstacles for these people, should be bending over backwards to encourage them to come back and work because there is a labour shortage on the horizon. They should also be paid to undertake further training and education. These people contributed hugely to society before the recession via taxation and social protection measures, but are now being told that they are not entitled to an education. Can the witness comment on this?

Ms Judy McAvoy

I see this issue arising regularly. I had a call yesterday from a person who was extremely upset. He or she had been away for the last seven years and wanted to do a masters degree, but would have to pay non-resident fees because of his or her absence. He or she was extremely upset; his or her plan has fallen through. He or she could not understand, as someone who was returning to the country and who had contributed to it for so long - and, indeed, who had great experiences working and studying overseas - why he or she would not be allowed to do something to improve Ireland further by going back to college. There is a rule for undergraduates only whereby if one has been at school in Ireland or the EU for five years, one can access EU fees, but-----

One cannot access Irish fees in that instance.

Ms Judy McAvoy

No, one can only access EU fees. If one has not been in the country for three out of the past five years but has been in school for five years in the EU or Ireland, one can avail of EU fees but not the free fees. That only applies to undergraduates; it does not apply to postgraduates. That is a major problem. It is a barrier for people and is extremely upsetting. We advise these people that it is possible to appeal. The final decision rests with the dean of the relevant college, but I have no idea how often those appeals are successful. We have not heard about any that have been successful. It is a real barrier for people, and is very frustrating and confusing for them when they are planning to come back. Usually, these people are returning to Ireland because they have had families and want to settle down with their families and friends and build a life here. However, experience overseas is often not recognised on pay scales, including for occupations such as psychology. A person returning from Australia might have been in college in Ireland, have ten years experience of working as a psychologist in Australia and would be put at the bottom of the pay scale upon his or her return to Ireland. That is also an issue. I am hearing about such things all the time. It is extremely upsetting and very frustrating for people in those situations.

Is it the case that a person returning to Ireland who was educated here and subsequently left the country for perhaps ten years before returning is not entitled to Irish-based education fees?

That is the case.

After how long does that person regain that entitlement?

Ms Judy McAvoy

It is available to them after three years. The rule states that he or she must have been resident in Ireland in three out of the past five years.

Is it the case that such a person would be entitled to Irish-based education fees after three years?

Ms Judy McAvoy

That is my understanding.

If a person comes back immediately, he or she is not entitled to avail of those fees.

Ms Judy McAvoy

No, he or she is not entitled to avail of those fees.

If the person had been away for a year or two, he or she would be okay, but if he or she was away for three years or longer he or she would-----

The cohort I met consisted of people who emigrated in 2010. That is eight years ago. They want to come home. Perhaps they are mechanics and the trade is not great at the moment and they want to better themselves. They are being told that, even though they grew up here and their parents grew up here and they paid into the system, they are not even entitled to undergraduate fees. Having to wait three years before being able to access Irish education fees is a big disincentive to returning home. It is no wonder the Government is making a mess of inviting people to come back to settle here when these stupid clauses exist.

Ms Judy McAvoy

That is the sentiment I hear from most people.

Ms Danielle McLaughlin

The Government has endorsed recommendations arising from a report commissioned by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Cannon. An interdepartmental committee is looking at all of the barriers for returning emigrants. The Indecon report contained 30 recommendations, covering a broad spectrum, which will span all Departments and which will require much cross-departmental insight and commitment. The HRC is one of the issues, as is the idea that there should be more consistency in the context of decision-making. One of the recommendations concerns recognition of experience and training abroad. The issue of education is also raised. There is much to work on. We are advocating for commitment and investment in these recommendations. Our diaspora policy seeks to facilitate over 100,000 emigrants as part of a long-term policy.

It is shocking that there seems to be no problem with a policy of dumping young people out of the country when the economy collapses. When it rises again, they are treated very badly. That is extremely contradictory.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation and for the work that Crosscare has done in recent decades. It has been very important for multiple generations of emigrants and, indeed, immigrants to Ireland.

I echo what Deputy Bríd Smith stated. Over 200,000 young people left Ireland. In this same committee we have heard presentations about pensions - another key focus - which constantly reminded us of the demographic gap. It seems extraordinary, not just in terms of employment but also in terms of the base and the balance of our demographic in the future, that there is not more proactive encouragement for people to return to the country.

From the presentations we have heard, it seems that catch-22 situations are arising. I note the recommendation on housing. We already know how extraordinarily difficult it is for people to secure housing. I imagine that one of the conditions is that a person knows that they can commit to a year's lease at a minimum. For many people, however, committing to returning home can be quite difficult if they know that they are going to be unable to access social supports. Are the witnesses finding that people are caught in catch-22 situations? Are they seeing situations where one member of a household or family is returning who has employment and another member of the family does not?

Do the witnesses find the people they work with are struggling to balance possible potential employment, possible social protection reporting and housing? Another concern, which overlaps with Roma and Travellers who are also groups affected by the habitual residency condition, is that there is a strong emphasis on secure housing, leasing a home, having family members who live here and have homes and what is called "settled residence". Do the witnesses find the intersection between housing security and being able to demonstrate one's centre of interest arises?

Ms Judy McAvoy

Many cases we see are crisis returns. People returning as homeless with no income are the main part of my work. It is a problem because not having an actual fixed abode can count against a person because they did not arrange housing or have somewhere to live. I find that often naturalised Irish citizens are held to a higher standard for return and can be asked why they did not secure employment or housing although many people cannot do that before they come back.

Mr. Richard King

As Ms McAvoy noted, we work most intensively with people who are in very high need as well as a broader group of people who contact us looking for information. We have great links with many of the emigrant groups abroad. There are people returning with families or who are about to have families. Someone might arrive back who is pregnant and accessing maternity benefit can be extremely difficult, or impossible. On the question of employability and having one person working, in some cases the spouse or partner might not be Irish. People are forming families in other countries. A separate issue that we are considering is the right of people to live and work here which is a secondary barrier. People might come back, say, a pregnant woman and her partner, who will not be able to work for six, eight or even 12 months, for example, and will also be stuck with the issue of accessing payments.

A more overarching point within that is that many of the people who left in 2010, many of whom went to Australia, is that many of them are now interested in moving to other countries. Their time in Australia is up for various reasons, whether tighter visa regimes or the end of their work, and they are now looking at going to Canada. Wh

There is a broader related point. It is interesting that many people who left in 2010, many of whom went to Australia, are interested in emigrating to other countries. Their time in Australia is up for various reasons, such as tighter visa regimes or their work has ended, and they are looking at going to Canada. That raises the question of why they are not looking to come home. There is a perfect storm of many barriers, any of which one might be able to get past, and probably will, but they amount to the perception of returning to Ireland being very difficult. Many will return to work, and they want to work, but they want to know there is a safety net. We have heard so many people say that one cannot get a payment for two years after returning. They wonder if it does not work out, what will happen to them, and that is a big disincentive. Even if we tell them that we think they will do it, it is amazing how this idea spreads. There are Facebook groups of more than 10,000 members where this disinformation spreads through large numbers of people. One thing we are trying to do here is what we see as our responsibility to raise this and bring it to the committee and the Department so that we can get past that. One key thing is making that information freely available through the Department. There could be a guide on how to achieve habitual residency conditions.

That makes great sense as does the idea of almost proactively looking to when visas expire to make that offer.

I have two very specific follow-up points. First, I was very concerned about what Ms McAvoy said about naturalised citizens and particularly that they might be having a humiliating or degrading experience. Is there concern, if not about racial profiling, then about persons who do not come from Irish parents? Second is the concern about persons who return to care, which this committee shares. That often happens very suddenly and they face difficulties, such as the habitual residency condition. It has both short-term impacts on matters such as accessing carer's benefits but also potentially long-term concerns regarding the recognition of pension contributions later on. That is an issue that has arisen over care credits. I want to check that I am correct that if one has not been working for a period prior to becoming a carer, then one's time as a carer might not be recognised for pension contributions.

Ms Judy McAvoy

I will take the first question on naturalised Irish citizens. The habitual residency condition is a greater problem for them because they are not being treated as, for instance, a young Irish person who went away, worked and came back. They might be people who came here as refugees, might have gone to school and college here and then went away to work, like any other Irish young person, before perhaps returning with their family. They are being held to a higher standard and it is not seen as them coming home. Their previous residence is often not recognised. It is another quite serious problem with the habitual residency condition and the idea of resuming residence. Sometimes only the resumption of residence, the return, is taken into account rather than the previous residence. The whole other half of the picture is missing and not taken into account. Naturalised Irish citizens are having a tougher time. We have one case study which shows how exceptional needs payments are sometimes withheld from them if they do not satisfy the habitual residence condition, even though it is no way related to the habitual residence condition.

Ms Danielle McLaughlin

Carer's allowance and pensions are not something we have dealt with a lot. However, we are concerned that when we look at figures for disallowances based on the habitual residence condition, they do not include carer's allowance. Some people have contacted us on this and anecdotally, through surveys which we did last year and this year, we see that people would return to look after a parent, probably temporarily, and leave again, but they might not have an income because they will not satisfy the habitual residency condition for carer's allowance. People take quite a financial risk to do that but they have no other option. That is something that concerns us. We are aware that the system for recording disallowances is being worked on to include carer's allowance but there are still no figures for last year.

I thank everyone for their presentations. I am particularly interested in this matter and have raised it with the Minister. We are letting our emigrants down. They are a legacy of the Government's failure and they are being failed again on their return. We need to break down any barriers and unfortunately there are too many of them.

Rural Ireland has been hit badly by mass emigration. If we are serious about rural recovery, surely it would make sense to assist our emigrants in every way possible. I am aware of families who have returned to Offaly who met serious barriers. One student managed to get herself a loan to pay her fees for the first year of college. She could no longer afford it and had to take time out to work. It is so unfair. These families were forced out of this country because of the failure of Government. They could have stayed and availed of every assistance but they chose not to and to go and work. They are treated in an appalling manner and we need to look at that.

We have heard a great deal about the undocumented Irish. It is shameful that an undocumented Irish emigrant can open a bank account in the US but cannot do so here on their return. We must get serious about tackling this and breaking down those barriers. There are pragmatic approaches that could be taken, and Crosscare has listed these in its report, which is very good. We often hear about the cost of making changes but we could use the existing infrastructure, dedicated assistance within citizen's advice, within our financial institutions and within the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, as the issues that I hear relate mainly to these areas. Of course matters related to social protection and opening bank accounts are significant.

There are some simple steps we can take here in the immediate to short term to alleviate the hardships and the burdens faced by these families. How would the witnesses view such an approach?

Ms Danielle McLaughlin

I believe that all the other services the Deputy has mentioned are very useful. We have made efforts as well to provide a lot of information on our website. We respond by email and by phone. Citizens Information has a lot of information. MABS would also be useful for people in mapping out a budget for returned emigrants. A lot of our advice is on pre-departure and preparation for return and our key advice, especially regarding access to entitlements, is to do their research, to be prepared and to look into what documents people will need on return instead of scrambling to find something that is in Australia or America when they are back in Ireland.

As to work the Department can do, the information that is available is very limited. It is buried somewhere in the website and it is hard to access information specifically about the habitual residence condition, HRC. The guidelines on the assessment are specifically written for deciding officers. They are not bespoke or user-friendly for the public. It is hard for advocates to work around that as well.

As for the training aspect, we are aware there is a large training programme within the Department but we know most of it is not mandatory but is optional. We believe the aforementioned discretionary power or just in the decision regarding the HRC can have an adverse impact on many of the cases we have seen or on people who potentially we are not seeing. I refer to many families who are returning who will get work and are entitled to child benefit and there probably are thousands of such people.

In very severe cases where people are left destitute or accessing homeless services, which has such a significant impact, deciding officers may not have been adequately trained or there is no ongoing updated training for new staff. That issue really needs to be looked at. Officers on the front line have such an impact on people and should have adequate training. They should also have the back-up of management support in terms of reviewing a case when it comes in to management, rather than referring it to the appeals office.

The appeals offices are backed up and the delays are long. This is a huge resource to continue with long-term decisions that are affecting people and which really could - in our experience with the 12 cases we highlighted - have been avoided.

Any of the witnesses can respond but I have a number of specific points. One issue raised was that the figures released by the Department on claims disallowed on the grounds of the HRC do not include a breakdown of those that have been referred to the appeals office. That is a critical piece of information because this would then give an overview. The only figure we have is Crosscare's sample, if we want to look at it in that way, where it appealed 12 cases and won them all. From the committee's point of view, I believe we should try to contact the Department to see if we can get further information in this regard. That would substantiate or support the claim that is being made that deciding officers are inappropriately or not properly equipped to make the decision and that it is only when it gets to the appeals office that these decisions are looked at. I believe as a committee we should have a look at this first.

As for my second question, I may have missed it in the report but generally speaking - this applies to anybody making a social welfare claim, the claim is made and one is asked for supporting documentation. The slower one is in responding with the documentation, the longer the application process takes. Where somebody is trying to prove habitual residency, I presume the standard length of the application process is longer than most because he or she is probably grappling with something that is not as well-defined and is trying to prove a point. Even if the case is successful, because such people are dealing with the HRC, it is making their overall application time longer. Is that correct or is that the experience of the witnesses?

Ms Judy McAvoy

It is but the problem I find is that sometimes people are asked for specific pieces of information and either we can or we cannot get them and that is fine. Often, however, a decision on the HRC will be made and it will be refused but the Department will not have asked for additional things it could have asked for and which would be quite useful at an appeals stage, after we have gathered these documents together. I almost find there is a rush sometimes to make a decision on HRC and that the Department can be quite quick to refuse it, rather than giving a bit more information on what would be useful to have in the application.

That brings me specifically to this question. Ms McLaughlin referred to the guidelines and ensuring appropriate and consistent application of HRC guidelines for returning emigrants etc. Should there be something more specific, almost like a checklist of what would be appropriate? In other words, by having a more structured approach to dealing with habitual residency we would be giving less discretion to deciding officers.

Ms Danielle McLaughlin

This could be an area that could be looked at. In a way, it is broad, in that deciding officers may have more flexibility in accepting one document over another, if there is an absence of one. We still need an element of that flexibility. We have highlighted in the report a couple of examples of good practice. One of them is where there is specific reference to deportees who are returning who will have a document confirming that they are under deportation orders. The officers will automatically issue this payment. We do not seem to have any issues with those cases, in particular, in accessing further supports like homeless services. That transition seems to be quite quick for that group of people and we know that it is a good practice.

Another good practice comes from another organisation somewhat like ourselves in County Mayo, called Safe Home Ireland, which provides some support for people, particularly around housing, and can assist them with securing housing and can provide a document to confirm that. Not everyone would be in that position, as it is targeting an older group of people in particular.

There are such different practices that can be learned from to smoothen transition for people. The HRC is provided on every application form. It is taking longer for applications from returning emigrants only where there is difficulty in obtaining the evidence and the documents-----

To prove the case.

Ms Judy McAvoy

What would be very useful is that a lot of our clients are Irish citizens returning from conflict zones, such as Libya, and often the key thing I would include with those applications is a print-out of the travel advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, having highlighted the part stating it advises all Irish citizens to leave Libya immediately. Often, however, that is not enough. In some cases that should be exactly enough because somebody cannot return to Libya in any reasonable capacity. Documents like that really should be capable of standing alone, in those cases.

Have colleagues any further questions?

Was it in 2009 or 2010, in particular when one is speaking about a common travel area, that the right to residence became somewhat conditional, that is, was being linked to secure employment etc.? How does that have an impact? I know it affects persons who have been resident in other common travel areas of the EU for a period and who have previously moved over. In terms of the contexts we have mentioned earlier around families, or even those who may not be married families but who are couples, partners or family units, has that issue arisen around one part of a returning household proving right of residence? Do these issues intersect? It seems to me that it became slightly different to what the position was in 2005. In 2009, it changed and basically, how is that playing out?

Ms Judy McAvoy

For us, the Irish citizen will always have the right to residence. If his or her partner has been added to the application, the partner is not assessed on HRC, it is only the main applicant who is assessed. The partner's circumstances will be taken into account but the main applicant is the only person who must satisfy the HRC. It can impact on it but usually we advise the Irish citizen with the history of living in Ireland to apply, rather than somebody whose permission in Ireland might not be stable at present.

Do immigrants from other EU states interact much with Crosscare's services?

Mr. Richard King

They certainly interact with the broader Crosscare services. To return to the Senator's point about the intersection of the right to reside and how it is assessed, we have found that the lack of understanding of the difference between an EU citizen exercising his or her rights and an Irish person coming back from Canada or Australia comes into it at the initial deciding officer phase. They get a little bit mixed up. Those cases might be viewed along the same lines although that should not be the case.

There is a different set of rules.

Mr. Richard King

It is often clarified when cases go to appeal. It goes back to that understanding and to some deciding officers being worried that they will make a decision that is somehow more beneficial to an Irish citizen when they should not be prejudiced against EU citizens. It is about comprehension and understanding.

There are different entitlements.

Before I conclude, would our witnesses like to make any final comments?

Mr. Richard King

We thank the committee for the opportunity. As I said at the beginning, we are doing this work and presenting it in the hope of contributing to the diaspora policy and its implementation. A big part of what we are doing to help break down some of those barriers is making these issues and concerns public. This forum is great in that regard. It is brilliant to be able to do that.

May I ask one question?

Of course.

Have the witnesses experienced an increase in people from the UK using their service in recent times? I just wonder whether that is intensifying post Brexit.

Mr. Richard King


Mr. Richard King

There is a lot of concern among Irish support groups in the UK and in America but we have not seen an increase on the ground.

It is not turning into a greater caseload at the moment.

Mr. Richard King

Not yet, no.

I thank the witnesses for their report, opening statement and presentation, and for taking questions. The responses were enlightening and informative. The issue of habitual residency is certainly something the committee will take seriously. We will do some further research on the number of cases in particular because that is interesting. It is unusual for somebody to turn around here and say that he or she made 12 appeals, all of which were successful. That underlines the fact that there is an issue. Deputy Brady is no different from myself. We all assist constituents in making appeals, which are not all successful. We might have a good return, but it is not 100%. Therefore, 12 out of 12 is an unusual figure. We will certainly do further investigative work on that. I thank the witnesses for their attendance.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.55 a.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 July 2018.