Analysis

Thursday 31 July 2014

Eamon Delaney: Civil servants are never fired, just reassigned

Heads should roll for recent behaviour but there is a worrying lack of political outcry, writes Eamon Delaney

Published 19/02/2012|05:00

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It is shocking but not surprising that not a single civil servant has been fired for an incredible bout of behaviour at the so-called Department of Social Protection.

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It seems that almost 100 departmental employees accessed the personal files of the public and passed on highly sensitive information to insiders. They snooped on their friends, on colleagues and celebrities.

It is hardly of reassurance to know that this has not been going on for a few weeks but for more than seven years, and involved thousands of records being improperly interfered with. In short, it is a disgraceful breach of trust, which just shows the corrosion at the heart of our civil service, a once-pristine post-colonial inheritance.

And yet, not one member of staff has been sacked for their conduct. Not one. This is despite the offenders breaching both the Data Protection Act and the department's own internal rules. Instead, 87 staff members were 'sanctioned' for improperly accessing sensitive data.

The 'punishments' included official warnings, loss of increments and being banned from applying for a promotion. Three staff members were suspended, pending investigations.

All of the snoopers denied any wrongdoing or that they 'benefited' from their actions, and yet a number of them admitted passing information over the phone to unauthorised persons.

And yet what is most amazing is how little outcry there has been about this, or comment from our otherwise vocal politicians, whose ambition is to actually be responsible for public servants. But then they are so immersed in the culture of the public service, and its indulgences and leniency, that they presumably don't see anything to get too alarmed about.

But you can be damn sure that if it was journalists doing this snooping, or bank officials leaking sensitive personal info, there would be an outcry and robust calls for enquiries and dismissals.

Meanwhile, in a separate case, gardai are investigating allegations that a rogue department official leaked confidential information to a private investigator working for insurance companies.

Details emerged after three insurance companies -- FBD Insurance, Zurich Insurance and Travellers Insurance Company -- pleaded guilty to two charges of wrongfully keeping data supplied to them by a private detective, who got it from a department mole. Not very reassuring, is it?

Meanwhile, it seems that those whose records were snooped on were not told about it. The Department of Social Protection reported one suspected breach of the Data Protection Act to the police and is liaising with the gardai on a second case. Otherwise, the snoopers claimed they didn't know the seriousness of all their busy rummaging.

But what makes this snooping so bad, right now, is that it comes at a time when people have been volunteering information to the department about welfare cheats, which last week was revealed to have created savings of more than €17m -- just part of the whopping €645m recently saved in welfare fraud. But how quick will our citizens be in informing about their neighbour's fraud if they think civil servants will, in turn, snitch on them and leak out their info?

It is hardly the reassurance we need at this time. Heads should roll for this breach of trust. But, of course, they won't. They never do, in the civil service. You just get re-assigned somewhere else, possibly to do even more damage.

Sunday Independent

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