Labour councillor, George Lawlor, is being investigated by the Data Commissioner for making representations to the gardaí and the Department of Foreign Affairs on behalf of a man who was on hunger strike over a fine.
Cllr Lawlor told last week's meeting of Wexford County Council the difficulty councillors face on a daily basis over Data Protection issues was hammered home to him before Christmas when he was informed in an email that a senior inspector of the Data Protection Commission was investigating a complaint made about him from a man he represented.
'To illustrate what we, as local representatives have to be conscious of, this preceded GDPR and relates to the disclosure of information to former chief superintendent John Roche and the Department of Foreign Affairs,' Cllr Lawlor said.
The Wexford man decided to go on hunger strike over the fine. 'Having received emails over 14 weeks I became very concerned about his welfare and contacted the chief superintendent and a person in the Department of Foreign Affairs who had been involved in the case. He has made a complaint to the Data Commissioner because I contacted the chief superintendent about his well-being. Now a senior investigator is investigating me for these breaches of data.'
He said he contacted Supt Roche in good faith to help the man. 'The annoying thing to me is the department are now investigating me,' having been informed that they are 'obliged to'.
Fine Gael Cllr Jim Moore said he previously raised how councillors are, as individuals, data controllers.
'Who is out there to support us other than the Data Commissioner? I have great concerns. When a local representative is carrying out his work any state agency can come to your door. We should be seeking public indemnity because we are out on our own.' Cllr Moore called on the Local Authority Members Association and other councillor representative bodies to raise the need for professional support with the Government as a matter of urgency.
Cllr Barbara Anne Murphy said: 'We need to have someone in our corner that we know will look after us as elected representatives because at this moment we are extremely vulnerable. I think the insurance company we have should be asked to indemnify us.'
Councillors expressed concern that any person could turn around and claim they never gave permission for their issue to be raised on their behalf, but were assured that the Government is aware of the problem. Talks are ongoing with the Data Commissioner and training will be provided.
Cllr Robbie Ireton said: 'This is another way of degrading councillors. We have enough to do without this extra pressure being put on us. To me it's crazy. Who would want to be a councillor with this kind of rope put around our necks? How can we represent people with mental health problems and homeless people? A lot of these people aren't even interacting with the housing department as they are too mentally unwell to ask for help. Do we leave them to die? I think it's absolutely crazy to put an impediment in front of every councillor in the country like this.'
Director of Services Eddie Taaffe said both he and county secretary Pat Collins are there for councillors who have any concerns about GDPR and data breach issues. 'Contact us and we will advise members as best we can. If you are having an issue, no matter how minor it seems.'
Cllr David Hynes said it was wrong that councillors should end up in a position where they are totally hog-tied and vulnerable.