Before Monday’s monthly council meeting, party group leaders met with Dublin City Council management to talk about what was being done to look into the leak of a file on homeless campaigner Erica Fleming.
Once the monthly meeting began, though, not much was said about the issue. There will be an investigation and when it’s done, the council will discuss it, Lord Mayor Brendan Carr of Labour said at the start.
It’s unclear when that will be.
“We don’t want to have a date and find out that it’s half-completed or something, cause more confusion. As soon as the report is completed, it will be on the agenda for the following council meeting,” said Carr. The findings will be debated then.
That mirrored what a spokesperson for Dublin City Council said last week about the release of the information. “This is currently under investigation in line with the relevant procedure and we will revert to the complainant following this investigation,” he said.
A Quick Recap
Just to recap: on 21 August, the Sunday Independent reported that homeless campaigner Erica Fleming had turned down two housing offers from Dublin City Council under the housing-assistance payment scheme, known as HAP.
Fleming set out her side in a column on TheJournal.ie not long after, arguing that the HAP scheme is insecure, and that she was never granted an official offer of accommodation, she just had a couple of phone calls from the council’s Place Finder Service.
Since then, councillors have been trying to find out who leaked the report cited in the Sunday Independent article.
“It’s an absolute disgrace, it shouldn’t happen,” says Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, who is also head of the housing committee. “Those responsible should hang their heads in shame.”
Under data-protection legislation, details of local housing lists aren’t supposed to be made public, and they aren’t supposed to be available to city councillors, either.
“It had to be leaked from somewhere, it didn’t fall from the sky,” Doolan says. “It was an attempt to shame and humiliate a woman who all was she was trying to do was to get housing for her family.”
It’s not completely clear what the motivation for the leak was.
Dublin City Council could not confirm who had access to the internal report, nor how many people within the council could potentially have seen it.
Neither the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive nor the council’s housing department was responsible for the leak, said the spokesperson.
“We have no idea how this got into the public domain but we are certain it did not come from the executive of Dublin City Council,” he said. “We have strict protocols around right to privacy for individuals and specifically, not releasing personal information under data-protection legislation.”
It could be a while before we learn the official version of what happened. Sinn Féin’s Doolan says it is important that all avenues are looked at.
“We’re waiting for the report now to come out,” he says. “We did not want to rush into a short report. We want a comprehensive report to wait and see if there is legal action to be taken.”
Lots of people could have had access to Fleming’s file, said Labour’s Dermot Lacey. “You could have officials releasing it, you could have councillors releasing it, you could have officials in the Department of the Environment releasing it,” he says. “It could have been anybody.”
Dublin City Council Press Office could not confirm whether or not officials at the Department of the Environment, now known as the Department of Housing, Planning, and Local Environment, had access to the document.
The Department of Housing said they don’t.
“The Department is responsible for setting national policy across a wide range of housing-related matters,” said a spokesperson from that end, in an email. “We do not have a role in assessing or deciding on the housing needs of individuals or their families. Consequently we do not collect or hold information on applicants for housing assistance.”
Some city councillors feel that this data-protection breach may ultimately distract from the larger issue of homelessness facing the city.
“I think these sort of diversionary debates really only serve people who have very little else to contribute to the debate,” said Lacey of Labour.
And some who work in the sector worry that it will make it even harder to get those who access homeless and housing services through the council to trust officials.
“Incidents like this serve to undermine the trust between the people who are trying to access services that Dublin City Council provide,” said Francis Doherty, a spokesperson for Peter McVerry Trust. “The situation for people in homelessness is already incredibly stressful and they can find it difficult engaging with organisations like Dublin City Council.”
If people on the housing lists feel that they may be the subjects of data leaks, nobody wins, says Doherty. “It will only have negative repercussions for both sides.”
However, despite the dangers of such leaks, and how distracting they can be, Lacey argues that some housing list data should be made available to city councillors.
“I think councillors’ relationships with their constituents are confidential so I don’t think any councillor should release information of a confidential nature,” he says. “However, I think there are instances where it is important information is out there.”