More than €150,000 spent providing secretarial services to two ex-Taoisigh over the past twelve months

JUST over €150,000 has been spent in providing secretarial support to two former Taoisigh over the past year.

The Department of the Taoiseach has been paying around €12,700 each month for secretarial assistance for Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny.

All of the money was paid to a company called Tech Skills Resources Ltd, according to figures released under FOI by the department.

Bills for Bertie Ahern amounted to just under €70,000 while a further €83,000 was spent on secretarial support for Enda Kenny, the figures show.

Supports for the retired Taoisigh had been ended in 2012 by Mr Kenny – when he was head of government – in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger crash.

However, they were restored by Leo Varadkar when he took office in 2017 with civil servants suggesting the annual cost could run to €300,000 per year.

Right to Know wins key case on access to environmental information from Data Protection Commission

Right to Know has won a case seeking access to records from the Data Protection Commission (DPC) over plans by Irish Water to charge for excessive water usage.

The case is a critical one because FOI effectively does not apply to the DPC, covering only records relating to general administration.

This means that everything relating to the investigations that the Data Protection Commission carries out is off limits for anybody trying to use Freedom of Information.

However, there is no such carve-out for the DPC from the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations.

The DPC unsuccessfully argued that the information sought was not environmental and that even if it was, it was exempt under the regulations.

In his decision, the Commissioner for Environmental Information was critical of how the request was handled by the DPC.

He found the DPC was a public authority for the purposes of requests under the AIE Regulations and that the information we sought should be released.

They now have two months to either release the information or appeal the decision to the High Court.

Bullying, drug dealing, and attack with a knife among complaints made by residents of accommodation for asylum seekers

Residents of direct provision complained of being attacked with a knife, a manager entering their room without notice, and a roommate who was selling drugs.

The International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) said they had received 109 complaints in the first eight months of this year including the theft of personal belongings and being blocked from speaking with a doctor.

A log of complaints from the summer reveals how one person complained that their child’s father was not being allowed to visit his daughter at a centre in Dublin.

In the Midlands, one resident said they did not feel safe in their accommodation and that the “manager is entering his room”.

Another case at the same centre saw a person claim to have been “attacked with a knife” and unhappiness with how centre management dealt with the incident.

In Co Clare, a complaint was logged about a roommate who was “aggressive [and] selling drugs” with the person asking if they could be moved away from them.

Risk register for Data Protection Commission warns of funding challenges and difficulties in recruiting key staff

The Data Protection Commission (DPC) was warned of the risk of getting taken to court and how a “negative outcome” for them could damage their reputation and drain their resources.

The DPC also raised concerns over a potential failure to secure and retain funding for its work and the challenges posed by a rapid expansion in its staff numbers.

The commission – which has previously admitted to being “acutely strained” by data protection cases involving giant multinationals – identified eight separate challenges in its latest risk register.

The risk that scored most highly was difficulty in securing enough government funding and getting sanction for “key items of expenditure”.

Garda data protection officer warns of insufficient resources to carry out role as well as absence of training for staff

An internal audit warned gardaí were at high risk of data breaches involving sensitive information as well as complaints, fines, and sanctions because of a lack of trained staff and resources.

The audit said the data protection officer for the force had warned he did not have adequate resources to do his job and that no comprehensive training had been provided to employees of the wider organisation.

The review identified four areas of high risk for An Garda Síochána in how they handle sensitive personal information like criminal records, CCTV footage, and witness evidence.

It said the absence of up to date polices, procedures, and guidance on processing personal data increased the chances of serious data breaches.

A response from garda management said: “Colleagues in [Garda Internal Audit Service] rightly identify the risks the current policy gaps present to the organisation in respect of breaches, complaints, fines and sanctions.”

It said extra resources were needed to bolster their data protection unit especially around requests for multimedia – like CCTV – which were “complex and resource intensive” to deal with.

Stripe founder John Collison’s €6 million restoration plan for derelict Millbrook House he bought from county council for €400,000

Stripe founder John Collison intends to spend €6 million renovating a derelict property he bought from a local authority for just €400,000.

The technology billionaire said he would make the 9,000 square foot Millbrook House in Laois a “spectacular home” to be used for close family and friends visiting from across Ireland and the world.

Mr Collison – through one of his companies – was the successful bidder for the historic home after Laois County Council put the derelict Millbrook House up for sale last summer.

In a personal letter accompanying his bid, John Collison wrote: “We are already investing at the Abbeyleix Estate with a mindset of being stewards of this property for the coming generations.

“The Abbeyleix Estate is a keystone piece of Laois history and deserves careful guardianship. We would be delighted to extend this approach to Millbrook House and we hope our offer is of interest.”

Laois County Council had originally refused to provide access to the winning bid following a request under FOI.

However, following an appeal to the Information Commissioner – as part of which the Collisons were consulted – the council agreed to release most of the record with only a small amount of personal information withheld.

Apologies for the poor quality of the scan but that is the way it was released to us.

“Hugely disruptive and disquieting” – An Bord Pleanála chairman updates staff about a “few very difficult weeks”

The chair of An Bord Pleanála told staff that allegations and media commentary about their work had been “hugely disruptive and disquieting”.

In a memo sent to employees, Dave Walsh said they’d been under the spotlight during a “few very difficult weeks” amid serious allegations about their work.

He said it had been “significantly damaging,” and had undermined their reputation and integrity in the minds of the public.

Mr Walsh wrote: “While, as a quasi-judicial body, we don’t perhaps have the same scope to speak out in a public forum and address all of the issues being raised, I want to reassure you all that I fully recognise the seriousness of these issues and its implications for the entire organisation.”

The message was one of a series of communications from senior management to staff as they grappled with the fallout from the resignation of deputy chairman Paul Hyde and other controversies about their work.

You can read the full set of records below, as well as see some other records released under FOI by ABP.

These include minutes of the management committee, diaries for the year 2021, and legal costs incurred by the Bord.

Unredacted records from failed social housing deal between Westmeath County Council and former minister Robert Troy finally released by local authority

Westmeath County Council has at last released a set of unredacted records relating to a social housing deal involving former minister Robert Troy.

The local authority had been ordered to release the records in this decision from the Information Commissioner (OIC).

However, four weeks after the decision was published – they still had not arrived and only did after the OIC were contacted to give them a gentle reminder. 

The records relate to a plan by a company involving Robert Troy to sell four apartments to Westmeath County Council for social housing.

They had agreed a price of just over €900,000 for the units but tenders for the project came back higher than expected at €1.06 million.

In emails, Westmeath County Council said they might be able to pay an extra 10% but said the higher price was unlikely to be sanctioned.

However, the Department of Housing baulked at any renegotiation saying it had been their understanding work had already begun and the price cited previously was final.

They asked how the council could demonstrate “excellent value for money” citing a search they did on that appeared to show there was “no shortage” of similar units available in Mullingar for less.

The department said their unit cost ceiling for a one or two-bedroom apartment in the area was far lower than what was now being quoted.

Westmeath County Council subsequently told the developers that they were not in position to progress the scheme owing to the “substantial increase” in costs.

The developers then said they would proceed with the development using their original pricing saying they were no longer “achieving the 10% profit on the deal as [they] hoped”.

As part of this request, Westmeath County Council has also been instructed to search for other records they may hold on the deal.

Emergency call fallback system also failed during system outage that saw more than 200 calls missed

A fallback automated system for answering 999 calls also failed during an outage of the emergency call service during the summer.

A major incident report into the Emergency Call Answering Service (ECAS) failure estimated that it was likely around 120 actual emergency calls had been missed even though more than 200 were logged during the outage.

The higher-than-usual volume of 216 calls during the seventy-two-minute failure was attributed to multiple “test calls” as well as calls from emergency services and other state agencies.

The report also said it seemed likely that some callers would have tried to contact 999 via “multiple means” using different mobiles and landlines.

Right to Know loses case over access to information from wind farm operator set up as joint venture between Coillte and ESB Wind

A dispiriting day for transparency yesterday with the publication of the Court of Appeal decision in one of our cases.

It involved Raheenleagh Power DAC [designated activity company] a joint venture originally set up by Coillte and ESB Wind, a subsidiary of the ESB.

In a previous High Court judgment, Raheenleagh Power had been deemed a public authority for the purposes of requests made under the AIE [Access to Information on the Environment] Regulations.

However, the Court of Appeal has now overturned that decision saying Raheenleagh Power is not a public authority and therefore, requests for information cannot be made to it.

The decision has widespread implications for public authorities and public bodies that set up subsidiaries or designated activity companies, or other similar spin-offs to carry out their business.

This is already a common practice, especially within the commercial semi-state sector and also among local authorities.

Yesterday’s decision appears to put all such subsidiaries beyond the reach of the AIE Regulations, and seems certain to encourage public bodies to set up such vehicles to avoid transparency over their activities.

Particularly problematic for us is the idea that such a company – originally a joint venture between two public bodies – could be considered “autonomous” and totally separate.

This seems difficult to reconcile when all of its directors (at least at first) were staff members of ESB and Coillte.

The court did find that Raheenleagh met part of the test of whether it was a public authority because it had been given powers to compulsorily purchase land.

However, the court said it wasn’t a public authority in that it had not been entrusted with a service of public interest.

The judgment said: “The generation of electricity is no longer the provision of a service in the public interest.”

The judgment is available here and we are currently considering whether it will be appealed.