Dublin Airport last month
At the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, Rise TD Paul Murphy was asking questions about the issue that beset the Government prior to the summer recess about social welfare officers and gardai holding checkpoints at airports.
It’s since emerged that, between April 1 and June 13, the Department of Employment and Social Protection held checkpoints concerning 30 flights at Dublin Airport and that 70% of these were flights to either Romania or Moldova.
This information was obtained under FOI legislation by legal executive Roman Shortall whose children’s Child Benefit was cut after he was approached by officers at Dublin Airport while he, his wife and children were preparing to board a plane to Romania on June 13.
Yesterday, Mr Murphy told the committee that he wanted to focus on the data protection aspect of the checkpoints and the cutting of people’s State benefits, Covid-19 PUP payment or otherwise.
He then had this exchange with Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) legal officer Christopher Bowes:
Paul Murphy: “There’s at least anecdotal evidence to suggest that the department had access to the registers of the ferry companies and airlines companies which would prima facie, anyway, would be a breach of the Data Protection.
“And in kind of investigating this, I’ve been informed of previous cases where people have had Child Benefit cut from them for being out of the state and it seems there is no basis in which the department could have known, no inspections, etc, except from having information either from airline companies, ferry companies or from immigration at Dublin Airport.
“So my question is, is this an issue that you’ve come across before in relation to other payments, where the department has access to information that certainly seemed it shouldn’t have?”
Christopher Bowes: “Yeah. I mean we haven’t actually had, prior to the issues around the Covid PUP. We haven’t, FLAC hasn’t come across any cases in terms of, which have raised concerns about what information the department has access to. But we certainly, going back as far as 2016, have had cases where we’ve raised concerns in relation to the actions of the Department at airports and ports in terms of those actions potentially exceeding the legal limits created by the 2005 Act.
“And in terms of the kind of the data protection concerns you’re talking about. I mean FLAC welcomes the fact that the office of the Data Protection Commissioner has launched an investigation into those actions and I think only through engagement with the department on that issue, engagement between the department and the DPC I think, is the only way to get clarity on the issue and to get some finality in terms of what has been going on in terms of these airport checks.”
Murphy: “And when you’re talking about previous instances where the inspectors were potentially operating outside the law, i.e. without a reasonable cause. Are you aware of the kind of profiling of particular flights to particular destinations in those previous cases?”
Bowes: “In each of those previous cases, they would have been flights to Romania and FLAC runs a Roma legal clinic and so we provide legal representation services to members of the Roma community and we would come across those issues. So in each case, it certainly would have been flights to Romania.”
Murphy: “Thanks a lot.”
Meanwhile, last night, Mr Shortall published on Twitter responses that Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy received from the Minister for Employment and Social Protection Heather Humphreys about these checkpoints.
In her reply, Ms Humhreys confirmed that the last DEASP checkpoint held at Dublin Airport was on July 16, while the last inspection at ports was on July 28. She also stated that no criminal prosecutions have been initiated by the DEASP directly arising from the checks at the airport.
Ms Humphreys did not respond to Ms Murphy’s question concerning the authorisation of these checkpoints. Specifically, Ms Murphy asked if Ms Humphreys or her predecessor Regina Doherty had a role in authorising the checkpoints.
Previously: Reasonable Question