'Shocking' that govt using GDPR to hide spending of taxpayers' money, PAC hears

'Shocking' that govt using GDPR to hide spending of taxpayers' money, PAC hears

By Elaine Loughlin and Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

The Government has set a "seriously dangerous precedent" in using GDPR to hide the spending of taxpayers' money, it has been claimed.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has heard that it is "shocking" and "a joke" that vital information is now being kept from the public.

The Department of Finance has stood by a previous ruling not to release the details of barristers who have been paid more than €2.8m to fight the European Commission's €13bn State aid Apple ruling.

Labour TD Alan Kelly had contested the decision of Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe who said he was unable to disclose the identities of legal council which the State has paid for the Apple legal case citing GDPR.

This is despite the fact that Mr Donohoe was able to provide the then up-to-date individual payments to named barristers to Mr Kelly in May 2018, before GDPR was introduced.

The PAC then got involved when it wrote to the Department about the fees paid to barristers involved in the State's Apple case.

But responding, Department of Finance secretary-general Derek Moran has claimed releasing the amount given to individual barristers would be "disproportionate and ultimately potentially unlawful".

Mr Kelly said the latest ruling sets a "seriously dangerous precedent" and he will be pursuing it further.

"I find this astonishing. The volume of money being spent by the taxpayer and we are being told that we can't get information on who is being paid. Is this the real purpose of GDPR?"

Mr Kelly added: "It creates an extremely dangerous scenario whereby the Government can hide publicly spent money."

Raising the issue at the committee's meeting yesterday morning, PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming hit out at how vital information is being hidden from the public.

Mr Fleming said: "There's shocking stuff in this. It's a disgrace if GDPR prevents the taxpayer from knowing how its money was spent."

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said it is "extraordinary" that the public cannot be told how much an individual is earning for taking part in public work.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry said the lack of transparency on the costs "makes a mockery" of the right of the public to know where its money is spent.

He added that the decision has "implications as anybody who's a contractor can now claim GDPR as a reason for hiding costs", before claiming: "As normal, the house always wins."

In correspondent to PAC, Mr Moran said advice was sought from the Attorney General's Office as to whether it was possible to release the names of personal data including the names of such counsel.

"The advice received from the Office is that the disclosure of information relating to professional fees paid to named barristers on foot of a Parliamentary Question is likely to be in breach of the GDPR and the Data Protection Act.

"Prior to the receipt of such advice, the names and costs related to specific Counsel were released in response to parliamentary questions but following receipt of this legal advice the release of such information is no longer considered possible," Mr Moran wrote.

Mr Kelly first asked about the amount of public money spent fighting the Apple case in a Parliamentary Question on June 18. The response provided details of aggregate legal fees for all relevant parties but did not break down payments to individual barristers.

Deputy Kelly brought it to the Ceann Comhairle's office and finally to PAC when he was refused the details.

But Mr Moran has now stuck by the original decision stating that if the Minster was to respond by disclosing the relevant information available to him this would "reveal personal data i.e. information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person".

"This may amount to an interference with individuals' rights to respect for their private life and their right to the protection of their personal data," he wrote.

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