Government concern at ‘astonishing’ 47,000 students ‘lying in bed’ picking up €125m in PUP loophole
3rd May 2021
Thousands of students are raking in hundreds of euro a week in a Pandemic Unemployment Payment loophole that allows them to claim the benefit.© Provided by Extra.ie
The cash – ranging from €203 to €350 a week – was meant to support people laid off due to pandemic disruption. But students realised they could claim the benefit and 47,000 third-level students make up the current 403,095 PUP recipients.
With the number of students claiming the PUP doubling in recent months, there is now concern growing within Government, with some ministers anxious to pull the payment for students that Higher Education Minister Simon Harris helped secure last year.© Provided by Extra.ie Pic: Julien Behal Photography
The weekly student claims would be adding more than €16million a week to the Covid bill at the full €350-a-week rate. One minister described the estimated yearly bill of €125million for student PUP ‘unsustainable’, with calls growing in Cabinet for it to be scrapped.
However, despite the fact that students are normally not entitled to Jobseeker’s benefits, the Union of Students in Ireland has insisted that students deserve the PUP because some of them work to support themselves through college.
A doubling of student numbers on the PUP since last August though has led many in power to suspect that students have spread the word that they can claim the payment, and that some are doing so disingenuously.
The most up-to-date figures reveal the number of students in receipt of the PUP is now 47,000 of a college population of 240,000, which is approximately one in five full-time students.© Provided by Extra.ie Denis Naughten TD Pic: Rolling News
Just under 20,000 students claimed the payment last August. That swiftly increased to almost 32,000 in December and by March it had ballooned to 46,906, the worrying data – revealed as a result of a Dáil question by Independent TD Denis Naughten – shows.
The high numbers are also a sign of the growing number of students who now work on a part-time or full-time basis to support themselves through college. But as the pressure on the Exchequer finances imposed by the pandemic increases, unease is growing in Government over the high number of third-level students who are claiming the PUP.
The increase in student claimants mean that while full figures are not available, ministers fear the scheme could be costing the Exchequer up to an extra €125million a year. One noted: ‘When we start to pull the spending drawbridge up, it comes in under the category of low-hanging fruit.’© Provided by Extra.ie Pic: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
The PUP rate varies from €203 a week to the highest rate of €350, depending on a claimant’s previous earnings, and was set up to support workers whose jobs were disrupted by the pandemic.
Such has been the extent of the student take-up, eye-opening statistics indicate that up to a quarter of under-25s on the PUP are college students. Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys warned: ‘These figures are based on a combination of self-certified information provided by the claimants and checks performed against administrative files from the HEA [Higher Education Authority] and should therefore be considered as estimated numbers.’
However, increasing concerns about the surging cost of the lockdown emergency means the unexpected bonus may be coming to an end for many students. One concerned minister said: ‘Having 47,000 students lying in bed enjoying the PUP grant is an astonishing number.© Provided by Extra.ie Unemployed Christmas
‘Looking at the increased numbers, it seems a lot of them must have been talking to each other about this good thing.’ The minister added: ‘It is unsustainable, frankly. ‘There is a real danger we are going to develop a culture of welfare dependency in our students.’
Typically, students do not enjoy access to State welfare benefits if they lose employment on the grounds that they are not available for full-time work. However, when it came to the PUP, students were one of the chief ‘accidental’ beneficiaries of the decision to not limit the original PUP to those ‘available for full-time work’.
Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week programme, Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Michael McGrath warned such spending levels ‘over the medium to long term are not sustainable’. ‘We are providing an extraordinary level of support: over €28billion – with €4billion being spent in the past four weeks,’ he said.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has also said supports to the Irish economy would continue into 2022 but the PUP would be examined in June. One senior political source warned: ‘The cash is running out. Paschal [Donohoe] and Michael [McGrath] are getting fretful. They will be looking for lowhanging fruit and the sleepy students are high up the list. It’s a possible €125million-a-year bill.
‘The Government came close to removing students from the payment before the last budget, but we were dealing with so many crises they slipped through again.’ One source noted: ‘Simon Harris put the kybosh on that. He had no intention of going to war with 50,000 screaming students in the middle of a pandemic.’
A student source confirmed: ‘Simon [Harris] looked after us at the time. He was very helpful, and he was very anxious to be seen to be helpful.’
Any proposal to end the PUP would plunge the Government into a serious spat with the USI, whose president Lorna Fitzpatrick said: ‘Students on the PUP have lost their jobs and income, just like everyone else on the PUP. ‘The type of jobs that students traditionally do have been hardest hit by this pandemic and the public health restrictions – cafes, restaurants, hotels, retail outlets and pubs are all closed.
‘These figures show the number of students that need to work to put themselves through college and it would be very concerning to us if the Government started pitting worker against worker… in terms of the PUP.
‘Students deserve fairness. They work to survive in college and the income they’re receiving through the PUP is vital. ‘Reducing or abolishing the PUP for students would result in dropouts, there’s no doubt about that.’