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Data Protection Commissioner ‘disturbed’ by use of ESB bills in household charge

DATA Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes has expressed concern about a proposal to access home owners’ utility bills in order to collect the new €100 household charge.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Hawkes described the move as a “disturbing development” and said any access to information from ESB or other bills should be minimal.

Mr Hawkes said the move was an extension of the powers of the State.

Responding to Mr Hawkes, Environment Minister Phil Hogan said today that any privacy issues will “be addressed immediately.”

"The large numbers of people paying the charge is a clear indication of compliance with the legislation and the acceptance that the household charge is necessary to fund vital local services in our communities."

Owners of residential properties must pay the €100 charge by 31 March and if setting up a direct debit must do so by March 1.

One in five homeowners offering to pay the new €100 household charge have opted to do so by installments over the course of the year, rather than in a lump sum upfront, it has emerged.

The number of people lining up to pay increased almost tenfold yesterday as the system got up and running.

Aside from online credit card payments, homeowners will also be able to pay cash over the counter at council offices.

The Government is planning a publicity campaign, with a leaflet drop into every home in the coming month informing them of the charge.

But opponents of the charge are stepping up their campaign, encouraging homeowners not to register or pay the €100.

A steady trickle logged on to the new website yesterday to pay up. By evening, the body in charge of collecting the charge said 6,093 people had logged on.

Of these, 4,844 had paid up immediately by credit and debit card on the website. Another 1,249 homeowners opted to pay in four instalments of €25 during the year. Opening day glitches have now been ironed out.

The website -- www.householdcharge.ie -- was set up to allow homeowners to register and pay the household charge by credit card or debit card.

Homeowners can also pay by post -- sending a cheque, postal order, etc to the Local Government Management Agency at The Household Charge, PO Box 12168, Dublin 1.

This must be accompanied by a form with personal details and address are filled out.

In addition, cash payment will be accepted in city and county council offices.

Officials insist there is no extra charge for paying over the counter.

The registration and payment system began on January 1 and homeowners have until March 31 to register, but must register by March 1 if paying by instalment.

An anti-charge campaigner has lodged a complaint with the Data Protection Commissioner claiming the new website breaches EU privacy regulations.

Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy of Dublin urged people not to register or pay on the site www.householdcharge.ie.

"The website's privacy statement declares that the site uses 'session cookies' which are erased after use, whereas in fact it uses so-called 'persistent cookies' that remain on people's computers after they visit the website. This is a breach of the 2011 regulations and I have made a complaint to the Data Commissioner about it," he said.

The Department of the Environment said it was not aware of any data protection issues but was making inquiries.

Meanwhile, the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes held meetings for local organisers in Tallaght in Dublin and Cork city last night.

Spokesman Mick Murphy said that , by next month, every householder should be able to contact a local campaign group.

"Every home will be knocked at to see if they want to be involved." Membership of the campaign costs €5 and this will be used for a legal defence fund.

Mr Murphy said the public response has been good with organisers in Portlaoise reporting that, last month, every second house they knocked at had signed up to become a member.

Irish Independent