Oireachtas must decide if sharing of TV details in ‘public interest’

Data commissioner agrees plan, part of licence crackdown, appears ‘Big Brotherish’

The Oireachtas will have to decide whether the public interest is sufficient to justify legislation interfering in the customer relationship between individuals and companies such as UPC and Sky, for the purpose of collecting the TV licence, the Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes has said. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times.

The Oireachtas will have to decide whether the public interest is sufficient to justify legislation interfering in the customer relationship between individuals and companies such as UPC and Sky, for the purpose of collecting the TV licence, the Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes has said. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times.

Wed, Jul 9, 2014, 18:02

The Oireachtas will have to decide whether the public interest is sufficient to justify legislation interfering in the customer relationship between individuals and companies such as UPC and Sky, for the purpose of collecting the TV licence, the Data Protection Commissioner has said.

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte yesterday said he would table a Bill to allow An Post, which collects television licence revenue, to access such subscriber data from the private service providers.

He claimed that what he termed the “scourge” of TV licence evasion would be tackled with the help of the legislation, for which he got agreement from the Cabinet yesterday.

Mr Rabbitte said the law would be drafted to allow An Post cross-check its database of licence fee payers against a list of households and businesses with cable or satellite TV services.

Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes said today that provided the Oireachtas decided this was a “reasonable and proportionate measure” and that the law made it clear that only a customer’s name and address would be accessed, then his office had “no reason to object to this”.

“It’s not our job to object to laws which are passed by the Oireachtas,” he said.

During an interview on Newstalk radio, Mr Hawkes was asked whether the measure was not “very ‘Big Brotherish’.

He replied: “Yes and I think that’s something we should all as citizens be conscious of, that when you see a measure like this you do think about it.

“You think about ‘is this proportionate?’”

He noted Mr Rabbitte’s claim that 15 per cent of TV owners did not pay for a TV licence.

“Obviously that has an impact in terms of the amount of tax the rest of us must pay to support RTÉ and so on. So therefore there is a public interest involved, obviously, in getting people to pay their TV licences.

“What the Oireachtas will have to decide is is that public interest sufficient to justify interfering in the customer relationship between individuals and Sky and UPC.”

Mr Hawkes said his office was “very conscious of making sure that it does not become a thin end of the wedge”.

“In fact, and that’s why we would welcome the fact that the minister acknowledged and recognised he does need to get Oireachtas approval for this interference with our rights.”

He said it was also clear the companies involved were concerned about this “interference in their relationship with their customers”.

Mr Hawkes said his office’s focus would be to make sure that the law was clear that the only information that An Post would have access to was the name and address es of the people who were subscribers to the service providers such as Sky and UPC.

“Obviously there’s no reason for An Post acting on behalf of the State to have access to, for example, what particular package you are on or any other information about you other than at this particular address there is somebody with a subscription to UPC or Sky and therefore in principle they should have a TV licence.”

He said the measure was “not a step to be taken lightly” and it did require the Oireachtas to think about it.

“It’s much the same as the Oireachtas passed legislation which gave the Revenue Commissioners the power to access information from utility companies for the purpose of collecting the property tax,” he said.

Mr Rabbitte said 1.1 million households subscribed to Sky and UPC services.

Last year, An Post collected just over €1.4 million in revenue from the TV licence.

In recent years, the commissioner has expressed concern about how State bodies access and use some personal data.

In 2012, his office expressed “grave concern” that the HSE was seeking confidential information from the Revenue Commissioners to assist it in assessing medical card applicants.

Revenue opposed the move as it does not disclose taxpayer information to any party unless there is a legislative basis for such an exchange.

In 2013, the Government passed legislation to allow the HSE access the Revenue data it sought.

Sharing arrangements are also in place between the Department of Social Protection and various bodies, including the Prison Service, the Department of Education and Skills, the Commission on Taxi Regulation and the Private Residential Tenancies Board.