THE Data Protection Commission (DPC) has raised "serious doubts" over the lawfulness of of the collection of personal data relating to the Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) at airports.
The government has been criticised for the halting of PUP payments to people engaged in foreign travel but has defended the practice saying that more than 90pc of cases related to recipients who were leaving the country permanently.
Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys announced a government u-turn on Wednesday to say that the PUP won't be stopped for people travelling on holidays to green-list countries.
Sinn Féin TD Louise O'Reilly has called for a special sitting of the Dáil next week so that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Ms Humphreys scan be grilled on the questions raised by the DPC.
The DPC has been examining the collection of data from passengers at airports and port.
Deputy Data Commissioner Graham Doyle this afternoon said that the Department of Social Protection provided further information on the collection and processing of personal data for the purposes of cancelling Pandemic Unemployment Payments and other social welfare benefits.
He said that the Department does have the responsibility to ensure the eligibility criteria for its welfare schemes are being complied with and that it's a requirement for most of the schemes that the recipients live in Ireland.
Mr Doyle said that the 2005 legislation that gives powers to social welfare inspectors states that they must 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”.
He said: "The DEASP has confirmed to the DPC that, in respect of certain flights over the last number of months, all of the customers boarding the flight were, and continue to be, asked for their details including name, address and PPSN.
He said: "The DPC cannot see how this practice of 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 act and question (and therefore collect data from) 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."
He said that the DPC is following up the matter with Department "as this practice continues today."
The Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) said they are very concerned at the DPC statement arguing that it shows that the Department of Social Protection "has been operating a blanket policy of questioning passengers boarding certain flights out of the country over the last few months."
FLAC Managing Solicitor, Sinead Lucey said: “The powers of Social Welfare Inspectors to question passengers at airports are prescribed by primary legislation."
She said the 2005 law provides that a Social Welfare Inspector must have "reasonable grounds” to believe that there has been some contravention of social welfare law before they may approach a passenger at the airport and make inquiries.
"The mere presence of a person at the airport is not sufficient grounds for them to be questioned about a social welfare payment," she added.
She said: "It should also be noted that anyone who is subject to such questioning has a right to fair procedures before any decision is taken by the Department on foot of such questioning.
"Any information obtained by the Department from passengers at the airport, in circumstances where Social Welfare Inspectors have acted in excess of their powers in obtaining the information, may mean that any decision taken by the Department in relation to a person’s entitlement for social welfare on foot of receiving the information is open to challenge," Ms Lucey added.
FLAC chief executive Eilis Barry said the Minister must instigate a review into the activities of Social Welfare Inspectors at airports "ensure that Departmental policy properly reflects the limited powers that are available to agents of the Department".
The Department of Social Protection this evening said it takes it responsibilities in relation to data protection extremely seriously.
A statement said: “Since 2012 the Department’s social welfare inspectors undertake control checks at airports and ports. These checks have a firm legal basis under Section 250 (16) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended.
“These checks are vital in order to combat social welfare fraud and protect taxpayers’ money.
“The Department of Social Protection is in ongoing engagement with the Data Protection Commission in relation to this matter.
“As there are a number of legal and technical matters involved, the Department will be addressing these matters directly with the Data Protection Commission.”