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Dublin city councillors say they won’t be able to do their jobs right if council managers crack ahead with mooted new data-protection guidelines.

Council workers would no longer release personal data to councillors without a signed consent form, and then only if they deemed it necessary to deal with the issue at hand, says a recent memo from Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan.

At December’s monthly meeting at City Hall on Monday, councillors across parties brought and voted to support an emergency motion rejecting Keegan’s memo.

Much of a local councillor’s work involves responding a a stream of requests for help from constituents, which come by email, text, WhatsApp, social media or during chance meetings around town – in the supermarket or wherever.

Requiring a person asking for help to physically meet up to sign a form, or to post one in, would slow councillors’ work on behalf of their constituents to crawl, many said.

“This evokes visions of us going around carrying handfuls of forms to be filled out on the spot,” said Sinn Féin Councillor Mícheál Mac Donncha. “It’s crazy. It’s Alice and Wonderland stuff.”

What Could Change

The memo from Keegan, dated 28 November, said council managers were putting the changes into place in response to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and Ireland’s resulting Data Protection Act 2018.

“At the moment, it [is] assumed that if a councillor is getting in touch with the council for information, they had the same right to access information as anybody at the council does,” says Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan.

But under the terms of the memo, if someone was having trouble getting information out of the council, and went to their councillor for help, in some cases they’d have to sign that written consent form giving the councillor the right to access their personal information.

Keegan said he was sympathetic to the difficulties that this would cause for councillors. But he has a duty to protect the council and its workers from potential fines from the Data Protection Commissioner for violating data-protection law, he said.

Beyond all that, it raises a bigger structural issue about the relationship between the elected councillors and the staff, managers and executives within the council, councillors said at the meeting.

“The biggest thing really is that it implies that a councillor is somehow outside the city council; that we don’t really have the same right to information about individuals as officials do. […] Our job is oversight, and that’s very difficult to do if we don’t have access to the same information as others,” Ryan says.

The new procedure would only apply to requests for “additional personal data”, not already possessed by the councillor, for example: health, family status, income, rent arrears, place on the housing list, disability status or names on a rent book.

“The most obvious thing is we regularly ask what position people are on on the housing list,” says Ryan, and how likely they are to be moved into a particular home. That councillors can’t get details on that has been a bone of contention for a while.

The memo says that “It is important to stress that most representations received by the Council from Elected Representatives do not require the Council to divulge personal information and can be adequately responded to without any issue arising.”

However, in many cases a form would be required to make a request.

Even after that request was made, council staff would get to decide whether the councillor’s request was “necessary and proportionate to enable you [the councillor] to deal with a request/representation you have received”, says the memo.

How Would It Affect Councillors?

This new procedure, if implemented, could “seriously interfere with the democratic process”, said Labour Party Councillor Mary Freehill.

“This is entirely disproportionate. It’s onerous,” said Fine Gael Councillor Anne Feeney. It’ll could people off seeking representation, and councillors off representing them, she said.

Also, the requirement that the consent form be sent in by post rather than email is “out of kilter with what’s done nowadays”, she said, at the meeting.

Sinn Féin Councillor Greg Kelly said being a councillor is only a part-time job, but with this new requirement, “You would need a secretary, or a PA. Your own office.”

“It just doesn’t work and it won’t work,” said Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey. “And it’s really really bad for the public.”

“The world would grind to a halt if we implement this,” said independent Councillor Ruairí McGinley. “It’s designed to deal with data breaches in large multinationals.”

A spokesperson for the council said that “The Chief Executive recognises the impact these legal requirements have on the day to day work of Councillors,” and “he welcomes input from all councillors on how this process can be improved”.

Waiting for Guidelines

Since GDPR came into effect here in May, public bodies have been waiting for guidelines from the Data Commissioner on how to interpret it.

But those haven’t come yet. Labour’s Freehill said that new policies like those in Keegan’s memo should be put on hold until they do.

“What we need to do is stop any agreement, and just delay it,” she says. “Regulations are how you interpret legislation, which hasn’t happened yet, so we’re jumping the gun here.”

This policy requires a huge cultural change in terms of how local councillors interact with their constituents, said a spokesperson for the Association of Irish Local Government (AILG), which represents councillors.

Outside Dublin, in other parts of the country, “where a councillor’s office is their phone and car”, councillors could potentially have to travel long distances to deliver forms and get them signed.

“We’re looking for flexibility,” the spokesperson said. “Would an email suffice? Would a text message?”

Fianna Fail’s Frank Kennedy said he has been disappointed with how Dublin City Council has been dealt with GDPR, not just from last week, but from the outset.

He says he asked in October 2017 and April 2018 how it would affect councillors, but was told he’d have to wait until the Data Protection Bill was finalised.

In May he put in an emergency motion asking for training for councillors about their obligations under GDPR, and Simon McGarr, director of Data Compliance Europe, came in and gave them a presentation.

“I would say it bears no similarities to what is being presented to us” in Keegan’s memo, Kennedy said.

A Done Deal?

“They are just proposals, but the city council is saying that they are completely necessary. We hope that they’ll heed our advice, but it’s not clear that they will yet,” Ryan says.

An ideal scenario would be if city councillors were treated as an integral part of the city council, and could ask for information on an equal basis, she says.

Where is the separation of councillors and council officials coming from, when the legislation does not seem to necessitate it? she asks

Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello asked a similar question. “Who is the council? Is it us, or is it council officials?”

Says Ryan: “Our view is that people come to us when the official processes break down, so we have to be in a position to advocate for them through that.”

Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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