Data watchdog: ‘Doubts’ over whether welfare inspections at airports were lawful

Controversy surrounds gathering of information from people in relation to Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Questions have emerged over whether Government inspectors had the right to question people in a blanket manner at the airport

Questions have emerged over whether Government inspectors had the right to question people in a blanket manner at the airport

 

The State’s data watchdog has said it has “serious doubts” about whether social welfare inspectors were acting lawfully when gathering information at ports and airports in relation to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).

The Government’s controversial policing of the issue has become a millstone in the dying days of this Dáil term, and other issues have now emerged over whether Government inspectors had the right to question people in a blanket manner at the airports.

Under 2012 legislation, Social Welfare inspectors can question people at ports and airports, but only when they have “reasonable grounds” to believe there is a contravention of the Act.

However there have been multiple reports of widespread checking and questioning of people at airports.

The Data Protection Commission (DPC) wrote to the Department of Social Protection in recent days asking it on what basis their inspectors had stopped and questioned people at airports, including asking them for personal information and personal public service numbers (PPSNs).

Deputy Commissioner Graham Doyle said that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DESAP)had confirmed to it that in respect of certain flights over the last number of months, all customers boarding the flights were and continue to be asked for their details, including name, address and PPSN.

“The DPC cannot see how this practice of collecting information from all passengers simply on the basis they are travelling to a certain destination conforms with the powers of inspectors under the 2005 Act to act and question (and therefore collect data from) a passenger where they have reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention,” he said.

“On that basis, the DPC has serious doubts about the lawfulness of the collection and processing of personal data in this context and is now following the matter up with the DEASP as this practice continues today.”

The watchdog also said it is following up on queries made by individuals about whether the DEASP sourced information from passengers from other sources that allowed targeting of individuals for payment cancellation without any interaction with an inspector at a port or airport.

The Department has told the DPC, and reiterated a number of times recently, that it did not receive or process personal data from other organisations when it was considering whether to question a particular passenger.

The DPC said it is now “further reverting to the DEASP with a view to confirming if the Department received information that would lead to cancellation of a payment in the absence of direct contact with the individual passenger himself/herself without questioning a passenger, as in circumstances where the answer received from the DEASP appears to leave room for such an eventuality”.

In a statement on Thursday, the Department said: “In the last few days, the DPC has raised a number of queries with the Department of Social Protection regarding the work being done by social welfare inspectors in airports and ports in recent months.

“The Department has comprehensively responded to these queries. A further query was raised with the Department this morning which will be responded to later on today.” It said the concerns now being raised by Deputy Commissioner Doyle have not been brought to the attention of the Department.

“At all times in carrying out their duties, social welfare inspectors operate within their statutory powers. The Department believes that the checks being done by inspectors in ports and airports have a firm legal basis,” it added.

Mixed messaging

The Department and the Government have been repeatedly accused of mixed messaging in recent days, with Ministers giving statements that appeared to give contradictory information on eligibility criteria and travel rules.

In this context, the watchdog also criticised the clarity and transparency around the eligibility criteria for the PUP and other social welfare payments, and particularly how they were intended to operate during travel restrictions.

“In such circumstances, it is difficult for individuals to foresee how their personal data will be processed and used and improvement to communications by the Department is necessary in such circumstances.”

The DPC also said that “several individuals have reported being approached by officials at airports where they did not understand who was raising queries with them”.

“It is worth noting in this context that inspectors exercising their powers under Section 250 of the 2005 Act must produce their certificate of appointment before questioning or making enquiries of a passenger in respect of which they have reasonable grounds to believe they have contravened the social welfare code.”

It comes after days of controversy over the manner in which the Department of Social Welfare stripped people who were travelling outside the country of their pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) and other payments.

The Free Legal Advice Clinics have already raised concerns over the extent to which the Act is being complied with. In a statement to The Irish Times on Wednesday, the organisation’s chief solicitor, Sinead Lucy, said there was a concern over whether reasonable cause exists when all checks are being carried out.

This, she said, “would require some prior knowledge of the person concerned and an evidence based suspicion that their presence at the port or airport and their intention to travel outside the State is not in accordance with the social welfare legislation.

“Checks at the airport cannot be randomised or based on arbitrary criteria or happen by way of blanket checks on all passengers waiting for a flight.”