The Department of Social Protection has rejected concerns raised by the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) over the legality of pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) checks on whole planeloads of passengers.
Welfare inspectors have the power to question airline passengers where they have reasonable grounds to be suspicious, but the DPC says the law does not give them the right to question all passengers boarding a flight.
Inspectors are currently interviewing whole planeloads, asking for names and dates of birth to check if they are claiming the payment.
The Department — which says it has saved up to €10m in fraudulent Covid-19 payment claims — maintains that what the inspectors are doing in ports and airports has "firm legal basis". It started the checks because it discovered a number of people in receipt of the payment returning to their countries of origin permanently.
But yesterday, after finally receiving answers from the Department of Social Protection, the DPC said it doubts the legality of what the inspectors are doing. The wider issue emerged after it was revealed that PUPs were being stopped for anybody leaving the country, even for a short break.
As a result of welfare checks on a range of flights to destinations including Romania and Brazil, more than 2,500 PUP recipients had their payments stopped. However, at least 85 recipients may have them reinstated following a review of those cases.
In response to the DPC’s doubts about the legality of what has been going on, a Department of Social Protection spokesman said: “In the last few days, the Data Protection Commissioner has raised a number of queries regarding the work being done by social welfare inspectors in airports and ports in recent months. The Department has comprehensively responded to these queries. At all times in carrying out their duties, social welfare inspectors operate within their statutory powers. The Department believes the checks being done by inspectors in ports and airports have a firm legal basis.”
The Department says its powers are backed by law: Section 250 (16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended by Section 17 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2012. This gives powers to social welfare inspectors where they have “reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention” of the social welfare act to “question and make enquiries of a person who is a passenger”.
But, while accepting that inspectors have a right to question people before they board flights, the DPC is questioning the legality of questioning an entire planeload.
Deputy Data Protection Commissioner, Graham Doyle, said: “The Department of Social Protection has confirmed that customers were, and continue to be, asked for their details. The DPC cannot see how 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 question a passenger where they have reasonable grounds to believe there has been a contravention.
“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 Department of Social Protection as this practice continues today. Further, the DPC has received queries from a number of individuals seeking clarity as to whether the Department of Social Security is sourcing information on prospective passengers from other sources that allow a targeting of individuals for payment cancellation without any interaction with an inspector at a port or airport.”
The Irish Council of Civil Liberties welcomed the DPC comments. Spokeswoman, Sineád Nolan said: "The blanket surveillance of people and the targeting of specific flights is unacceptable. The Government still has many more questions to answer.”