This matter was raised in the Irish Times and can be read online here.
Below is the full text of TRUST’s complaint to the Data Protection Commissioner.
TRUST makes formal complaint to the Data Protection Commissioner regarding tender process for the outsourcing of Housing Support Services.
13th October 2009
Mr. Billy Hawkes
Data Protection Commissioner
Re: Danger to the privacy of people who are homeless through the outsourcing of Housing Support Services by Dublin City Council
Further to our last complaint about the Homeless Agency, which we received correspondence from your office by the then Acting Commissioner Gary Davis, dated 11 July and 11 August 2008, we are very concerned about the outsourcing of Housing Support Services by Dublin City Council, which potentially could result in the abuse of the highly personal and confidential information about people who are homeless, which we complained about in the first instance.
The documentary evidence, which has given rise to our concerns, is the confidential Invitation to Tender document, a copy of which I enclose, and is only made available we understand, to registered potential service providers. Indeed, many of the same questions we raised in our original complaint, which was sent to your office in a letter dated 25 July 2007, a copy of which I also attach, are all relevant again in this context because services will now be outsourced to private contractors.
The tender has been issued by Dublin City Council, acting on behalf of the Dublin Local Authorities in collaboration with the Homeless Agency. You may also be aware that the Homeless Agency, which you discovered had no independent legal personality, and was simply part of Dublin City Council, is now being merged with other agencies. Therefore, our complaint on this occasion must be directed at Dublin City Council, the body with overall responsibility.
Before dealing with the specific concerns which arise out of the Invitation to Tender document, which prompted this new complaint, I think it is important to point out that when services, formerly provided by the state, are outsourced to private contractors, they must be done within very strict budgets or a loss may arise, something all businesses and voluntary bodies will attempt to avoid with considerable vigour. Against that background, great care must be taken to protect the people these new services are meant to help in case the service providers are forced to cut corners. Therefore, you will appreciate when we could find no credible evidence of specific measures designed to guarantee quality of service, or to protect the privacy of vulnerable people in the aforementioned tender document, we became very concerned. In an atmosphere where service providers are under financial pressure, the question must be addressed: will highly vulnerable people, who are often not in a position to complain, be put at risk?
Holistic Needs Assessment (HNA)
The basis for our original complaint was the highly intrusive way in which highly personal information was harvested through the Holistic Needs Assessment document, a concern you clearly found justified on the last occasion. However, as you will see in the Invitation for Tender Document on page 9, under the heading – 3.1.3 Provision of Support (Intensity and Duration), the HNA will not only be shared with the new contractors, but form the basis for the provision of new services, with no reference to the protection of the privacy of very vulnerable people.
In that context, it is worth noting that the Community Welfare Officers, have also expressed real concerns about the manner in which confidential information will be handled by the new contractors. They have, we understand, refused to hand over their confidential files until these issues are addressed. The latter only further increased our concern, especially as it appeared to suggest that little or no concern is being shown for the right to privacy of the most vulnerable.
Indeed, as you will see in Section 3.1 the new service providers will be involved in delivering services across a very broad range, even sourcing mental and other health services. Against that background, confidential information will inevitably be at the core of the new outsourced services, and the protection of the rights of very vulnerable people is clearly imperative.
You will be aware of our concerns in relation to the LINK system on the last occasion. In fact, sharing data bases will be a fundamental part of the new outsourced services. The Invitation to Tender document makes plain on page 13, under 3.2.3 Contractual Responsibility of the Provider to the Local Authority, that the contractors or service providers must comply with the following:
‘The use of and co-operation with, any IT/shared database systems as prescribed by the Local Authority as relevant to the operation of Housing Support Service(s).’
We have concluded from the foregoing that there must be wholesale data sharing, in a highly systematic way if the outsourced services are to “work” within the framework as laid down by Dublin City Council. We have seen how that worked when the Homeless Agency operated that system as part of Dublin City Council in the past. However, it is clear, if the services are fully outsourced as envisaged, it is conceivable that there will be even less control and protection of the most vulnerable under the new system.
Key Questions that must be addressed:
Before outlining the detailed questions that our concerns give rise to, it is important to stress, that this new system is not in place yet. Therefore, in raising these questions, we are very anxious to prevent a new regime, if possible, that will compromise the rights of the most marginalized in society.
How will proper care be taken, under the system as envisaged in the Invitation to Tender, to ensure that informed consent is obtained from people, who in most instances maybe highly vulnerable and suffer from mental and psychological problems?
What steps will be taken to ensure that the service providers, who take over housing support services, will not be able to use undue pressure to obtain signed consent forms in exchange for the provision of services?
How will the quality of the proposed services be assessed? And who will be responsible for managing that process? (Quality in that sense would include: Are people properly informed of their rights? Is informed consent defined, and what steps are taken to observe agreed protocols in obtaining it? How will the level of training of necessary staff be assessed? What steps are taken to ensure that only highly trained people carry out appropriate functions to ensure vulnerable people’s rights are protected?)
How will the contractors or service provider be monitored to ensure that all information is used and obtained consistent with the Data Protection Act?
In our previous complaint, we were especially concerned about large-scale information harvesting of the most intimate and invasive nature, for which there did not appear to be any need or justification, a contention that you supported in certain instances. When we question how will the quality of services be monitored, such questions must be at the heart of that process, to ensure that people who may already be suffering from mental problems will not be subjected to further pain by insufficiently trained or inexperienced staff.
The pressure that is brought to bear on private contractors and service providers to work within their budgets, poses real risks for the most vulnerable. Indeed, when we submitted our complaint in 2007, we offered anecdotal evidence, that suggested that untested allegations were entered on LINK, and were often used to bar individuals from access to services. In a situation, as envisaged by the Invitation to Tender, where the pressure will be placed on those agencies that win contracts to ensure that people are ‘improved’, will that result in even more emphasis on entering allegations in the system to ensure that people perceived as ‘difficult’ are denied access to services, without having the opportunity to defend themselves?
In conclusion, we acknowledge that this complaint is of necessity a pre-emptive action, because the way in which housing support services will be outsourced, under the terms as outlined in the Invitation to Tender document, appear to pose a grave risk to very vulnerable people. On that basis, we urge you to act urgently to review in detail the tender process, because if the services are rolled out as outlined, it may be both difficult and costly to act to protect people after they are established.
I look forward to hearing from you.
With very best regards
Director & Co-Founder