On 20th January 2015, the Minister of State for Equality, New Communities and Culture, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, launched ‘Person or Number? 2’, a report commissioned by a number of human rights organisations, including NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre and FLAC. It is the second report of its kind with the first being published in 2012. The report examines the hardships faced by immigrants seeking access to social protection services in Ireland.
The report is based on the analysis of 35 cases where immigrants encountered difficulty in accessing social protection. Many of these cases involved more than one issue. The report found several incidents of “serious customer service issues”, including some reports of racism and general rudeness towards immigrants. One such immigrant was allegedly told “‘if you are not happy, go back to ****”, in a manner described as “racist and aggressive”. Another immigrant was told “too many people from **** are coming here to take benefits for free”.
Fiona Hurley, of the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, said that “Customer service issues need to be tackled as a priority, as it is unacceptable that anyone should be subjected to any kind of aggressive or abusive behaviour or racism when they present to a State service.” While only a few of the cases examined have alleged such behaviour; any instance of this behaviour is exacerbated by the fact that such remarks are coming from someone who is effectively representing the State. To help tackle this issue, the report recommends mandatory anti-racism training for all employees of the Department. The report further recommends designating each public office of the Department as a racism-free zone with a displayed pledge from staff that racism from anyone will not be tolerated on the premises.
Another difficulty faced by immigrants that is highlighted in the report is poor provision of information. The report highlights two instances where applicants were not told of the documentary requirements to prove that they are “genuinely seeking work”, neither were they informed before a decision was made on their application. Furthermore, the report found that in several cases people were not told by their Social Welfare Office that they could go to their local Community Welfare Office to apply for short-term financial assistance. The report also found “significant knowledge deficits” among frontline staff regarding the qualifying criteria for some payments. To combat this, the report recommends that an audit of the level of knowledge of frontline staff would highlight areas where training is needed.
The Department of Social Protection’s Customer Action Plan 2013–2015 outlines a commitment to accommodate diversity and eliminate barriers. The Department also states that it will provide interpretation and translation services when required. Despite this, the report found at least 5 cases involving applicants who clearly had inadequate English skills to comprehend the application procedures. In none of these cases was the applicant offered an interpreter. Furthermore, in one case, an applicant requested an interpreter, but was refused. The report notes that if applicants have inadequate English, it can lead to unbalanced interactions, with misunderstandings on both sides. To help deal with this, the report recommends the implementation of guidelines for frontline staff members to help them decide whether or not an applicant requires an interpreter and that if required, an interpreter will be available on request.
While these are some of the key issues that are noted in the report, several other issues, and recommendations on how to remedy them, are also included, such as payments being stopped without notice and decisions being made based on speculation.
The full report is available online and can be found here.