Welfare staff opposed giving PPS numbers to Irish Water

Secretary general said utility company would ‘get nothing’ until it formally wrote to her

Minister for Social Protection, Tánaiste Joan Burton. Staff at her department vigorously opposed the handing over of PPS numbers – particularly of children – to Irish Water. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Social Protection, Tánaiste Joan Burton. Staff at her department vigorously opposed the handing over of PPS numbers – particularly of children – to Irish Water. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Staff at the Department of Social Protection vigorously opposed the handing over of PPS numbers – particularly of children – to Irish Water, it has emerged.

Emails released under Freedom of Information legislation show Irish Water (IW) was seeking a “data dump” from the department, including information on all children for whom child benefit was paid.

Documents also show the utility failed to engage with the department on the question of accessing the data until weeks after Irish Water started posting application forms to households in September.

These forms sought PPS numbers of householders and any children who were eligible for child benefit.

It said these were necessary in order for it to apply Government allowances for water charges and it expected the department would verify them once customers had handed them over.

Implications questioned However, staff in the department questioned the data protection implications of handing over the PPS numbers and their obligations under official secrets legislation.

Secretary general of the department, Niamh O’Donoghue, told staff the utility was to “get nothing” until it wrote to her formally, which it did not do until September 18th – several weeks after it started media advertising and sending out packs to householders.

As late as October, an internal department email following a meeting with Irish Water said the utility had given the issue “little thought, so this discussion will go on for a wee while”.

It added: “We are making progress as you will see, but DSP objective is to protect its data, its reputation and minimise its commitment while being supportive to IW as directed in the Government decision (on water charges).” Email exchanges There are concerns throughout six months’ worth of email exchanges about “very limited” contact from Irish Water, with one document expressing concern the department “may be blamed for shortfalls in IW performance”.

The department documents indicate it was “pushing back strongly” on Irish Water’s request that it verify a customer was a recipient of child benefit.

Department officials ultimately conceded it seemed “likely” the utility was entitled to get the information it was seeking, but certain information could not be provided unless it was to allow some “fishing”.

The Social Welfare & Pensions Act, signed into law in July, amended the law to add Irish Water to the list of ‘specified’ bodies allowed to ask for PPS numbers.

But the requirement for customers to hand over this information to the utility was eventually dropped when Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly announced a revised package of measures on water charges in November.

Reaction expected Department official Tony Kieran of the child benefit (CB) section in Letterkenny told colleagues in emails he expected a major public reaction and had made it clear to Irish Water in a meeting in June his section would “not be dealing with phone or other queries on this”.

“I have serious reservations about providing a wide-ranging data dump as I believe we (DSP and CB) will be dealing with a lot of fallout and get into arguments that have nothing to do with our schemes. This is without even considering the data protection implications of such an approach.”

By July, Mr Kieran was expressing concern that he was hearing radio ads from Irish Water stating correspondence would issue to the public shortly and that, as yet, it had not been back in touch with the department or drafted up any rules to apply to crediting water allowances.

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