Concern over abuse of data if homeless services outsourced

Mon, Nov 30, 2009, 00:00

A HOMELESS support group has expressed concern that the out-sourcing of services for homeless people in the Dublin area could result in the abuse of personal and confidential information.

Trust, the homeless support group, said the move by Dublin City Council to privatise or outsource these services was a “cynical cost-saving exercise”, which would leave those least able to cope much worse off. The move also had implications for the sharing of sensitive personal information relating to homeless people across private or voluntary organisations, Trust said.

Alice Leahy, the group’s co-founder, said sensitive information relating to homeless people has to date been handled by community welfare officers.

Under the new system, personal information would be placed on a shared database, she said. This step formed part of a wider trend in “harvesting information” of the most intimate and invasive nature.

She has asked the Data Protection Commissioner to investigate whether the system will be in breach of State data protection laws. The move to outsource or privatise services could lead to “corners being cut”, Ms Leahy warned. “When services formerly provided by the State are outsourced to private organisations, they must be done within very strict budgets.

“Against this background, great care must be taken to protect the people these services are meant to help in case the service providers are forced to cut corners. We find no credible evidence of specific measures designed to guarantee quality of services, or to protect the privacy of vulnerable people in the tender.”

Following a complaint from Trust last year, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner expressed concern at the way sensitive information on homeless people was being shared by local authorities and service providers.

It deemed that personal questions being asked of homeless people before accessing services may be excessive in the absence of a discernable legitimate interest.

The Homeless Agency, which co-ordinates homeless services in the Dublin area, has defended its use of this “holistic needs assessment” document as being vital to providing person-centred services.

In response to the concerns of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner last year, it said it was confident that by working with the commissioner it would be compliant with relevant laws.

The tender, meanwhile, advertised by the council, seeks submissions under the “support to live independently” scheme.