I welcome the Minister, Deputy Alex White, back to familiar territory.
Communications Regulation (Postal Services) (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second Stage
I am pleased to present the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) (Amendment) Bill 2015 for the consideration of this House. The legislation is an important, almost final, milestone in the introduction of a national postcode system. Ireland is the only country in the European Union or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development without a postcode system. While successive Governments have grappled with this issue, the Government is now in a position to bring the postcodes project to a successful conclusion, building on work completed since the publication of the report of the National Postcode Project Board in 2006.
The Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Act 2011 provided for the full liberalisation of the postal sector in Ireland. It included provisions, in section 66, to permit the Minister to establish a national postcode system. In July 2009 the then Government approved the launch of a procurement process for a national postcode, based on the 2006 report of the National Postcode Project Board. In 2010 the Department established a postcode steering group and undertook a wide-ranging consultation process on implementation of a national postcode system. More than 60 interested parties were met as part of that process. There was a positive response to the consultation process and the Department received detailed views on various issues, including the technical specification, dissemination and commercialisation of the system.
A detailed procurement process began in January 2011. Part of this process was the competitive dialogue phase which involved face-to-face talks on proposals to assist the Department in defining its final tender requirement and ensuring all bidders were adequately informed of them. In October 2013 the Government approved the appointment of Capita as the postcode contractor. Capita employs over 2,000 people in Ireland. It has been contracted to design, develop and implement the national postcode system, working with indigenous Irish companies to create the supporting technology for the project. The brand Eircode was approved by the Government in April 2014.
I will now deal with the rationale for the project. The ways in which we communicate and conduct our business have been radically transformed in recent years. This transformation is ongoing. We live in an interconnected world. The digital economy is worth €8.4 billion and is growing at a rate of 20% per year, five times faster than the rest of the economy. Research suggests that by 2020 the value of the digital economy will have risen to 10% of gross domestic product, GDP, or over €21 billion. Irish consumers spend in excess of €6 billion a year, or in the order of €700,000 per hour, 24 hours a day.
Moving goods from a virtual point of sale to people's homes and businesses is a major logistical undertaking. During the consultative phase of the project many stakeholders, in both the public and private sectors, told us about the challenges of finding addresses in Ireland, particularly in rural areas. The Nightline group handles more than one million parcels a month and employs more than 750 staff at 11 sites throughout the entire island of Ireland. It is strongly in favour of adopting Eircode as it deals with these issues first hand.
Approximately 35% of premises have exactly the same address as another property. In both rural and urban areas, the same building can have multiple forms of address. Unlike other countries, we have no legal form of addressing in this country. For these reasons an area or hierarchical-based code would simply not work in Ireland. It would not allow us to overcome any of these addressing difficulties. We have, therefore, adopted a unique approach tailored to meeting our unique addressing challenges. We have developed a postcode system that assigns a unique identifier to each address in the State. This approach is future proofed in that it allows for future expansion in the number of addresses without changing Eircode postcodes. It is also sustainable with no requirement to reassign or change an existing Eircode postcode when a new premises is built.
Fundamentally, this project is about delivering a critical piece of national infrastructure which will secure many benefits. The National Ambulance Service has stated it looks forward to the launch of the new Eircode system in Ireland which will assist in locating address locations. It said that a system, such as Eircode, which contributes in assisting ambulances to arrive at the scene of an emergency faster, is a welcome development and that Eircode will be exploited fully in the interests of quality and safe patient pre-hospital care. The other emergency services will also use the codes in time.
The introduction of Eircode will also deliver the following benefits: make it easier for consumers to shop online and assist the development of Irish online commerce; improve the quality of access to public services, while reducing the cost; enable commercial organisations to improve existing services and develop new service offerings; improve planning and analysis capabilities across both public and private sectors; and provide a stimulus to mail volumes through improved direct marketing capabilities.
Significant stakeholder engagement was undertaken during the procurement process and initial roll-out. Thirty industry seminars have been conducted since March 2014. These industry groups include telecoms, energy, banking, insurance, retail and logistics. In excess of 1,000 attendees representing more than 600 different companies have attended these sessions and additional seminars will be held in the next two months. Information for businesses is also available on the Eircode website which provides guidance on preparing for Eircode postcodes and details of the products and pricing. Sample data have also been made available to allow businesses and other organisations test their systems in advance of the launch. Immediately following the launch of Eircode postcodes, every premises in Ireland will receive a letter containing the Eircode postcode for that address. The letter will include information on the benefits of Eircode postcodes and how they can be used. The launch will also feature a national communications campaign that involves television, radio, national and regional press. The campaign will be complemented by an online tool to enable citizens to easily find Eircode postcodes and addresses. Members of the public will be able to enter an address to find an Eircode postcode or enter an Eircode postcode to find an address. The Eircode postcode finder will be easily accessible on a computer, tablet or smartphone. It will also be able to identify addresses on an Ordnance Survey map and will help the user with directions, if needed.
Equally important, an outreach campaign, managed by Capita, the Wheel and Irish Rural Link, is under way. The campaign reaches out to vulnerable groups to explain the benefits of the codes and address any concerns people may have about their use. I am especially pleased that this outreach programme includes the recruitment of 23 outreach champions to drive awareness at county level. These champions have mobilised almost 2,500 volunteers in more than 550 organisations to reach out to people in their own communities, including GAA clubs, community alert groups, active retirement clubs and rural transport groups. They have reported a positive response to the introduction of Eircode postcodes and a widespread interest in learning more. These volunteers have assisted almost 9,000 people. They plan to reach thousands more in the coming months to ensure all sectors of society are aware of and comfortable with using Eircode postcodes. Local briefings, print materials and electronic information have been provided to community, voluntary and civil society groups at national and local levels. Information leaflets will be available in citizens information centres. This effort is providing further assistance and ensuring greater understanding of the new system among vulnerable groups.
Eircode postcodes are not compulsory. No one will have to pay for them. No individual householder will have to pay for his or her Eircode postcode. The Eircode postcode system will be rolled out automatically. No citizen needs to take any specific action once the Eircode postcode has been received through the letter box.
The final significant element of the project is the enactment of this legislation. It will ensure members of the public can have absolute confidence in regard to data protection. The primary purpose of this legislation is to enshrine the highest levels of data protection within the postcode system. It also provides the clearest possible reassurance that all personal data will remain secure. My Department has consistently taken a strong line on data protection in the design, implementation and operation of the project. The contract we have with Capita reflects this approach. As Minister, I have decided that this approach must be confirmed in primary legislation to ensure the greatest level of protection for citizens. My Department has had ongoing engagement with the Data Protection Commissioner. My Department has also completed and published a comprehensive privacy impact assessment even though it is not a statutory requirement. The purpose of the privacy impact assessment is to ensure any potential privacy impact on individuals as a result of the introduction of Eircode postcodes is recognised and addressed. The assessment has concluded that the introduction of Eircode postcodes is unlikely to have any significant adverse effect on the right to privacy. All the recommendations contained in the assessment have been incorporated into this Bill. The Bill represents a sensible and pragmatic approach to data protection as it relates to postcodes. It sets out the high level principles underpinning a protective framework and strikes a balance between ensuring the commercial viability of postcodes while at the same time underpinning data protection.
I will now deal with the text of the Bill. This relatively short Bill is divided into three sections. Sections 1 and 3 contain standard preliminary provisions and definitions.
Section 2 contains the main provisions of the Bill. It sets out the amendments to the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Act 2011 and outlines requirements for the use of postcodes. It provides a statutory footing for specified legitimate postcode activities which are fundamental to the establishment and implementation of the postcode project. Section 66 of the principal Act also provides additional safeguards for the legitimate interests of owners and occupiers of properties by providing the Minister with powers to set down requirements that businesses must satisfy before they can be granted a licence to use a postcode database to provide value-added services. Value-added services are products or services that use or are derived from a postcode database. This provision enables the Minister to ensure those who sell these services, known as value-added resellers, VARs, are screened against specific criteria before they can use postcode databases. This section also provides the Minister with the power, by regulations, to require the postcode contractor to include certain specific provisions in the licences it grants to value-added resellers. This enables the Minister to ensure there is a robust legal contract governing the manner in which value-added resellers use postcode databases, including protections such as audit rights and sanctions, including the suspension and termination of licences. In addition, the postcode contractor will only grant a licence to a VAR or end user where it can be demonstrated that they have registered with the appropriate data protection regulator, if this is required.
Section 66B, as inserted by section 2 of the Bill, introduces a specific obligation for the postcode contractor and VARs to publish a privacy notice.
This requires specific information to be made readily available to individuals on how postcodes will be used and to whom they may be licensed. It also sets out individual rights with a view to enabling the creation of a clear and transparent data protection framework.
Section 66C provides for the amendment of the principal Act to clarify that certain legitimate postcode activities may be undertaken in compliance with the Data Protection Acts. The scope of these legitimate postcode activities has been kept deliberately narrow. They cover the fundamental functions of the postcode system, including its development and maintenance, the dissemination of postcodes, the matching of addresses and the licensing and reselling of the postcode address database.
The Minister is also to be given the power to make regulations specifying new legitimate postcode activities. The Minister will be required to consult the Data Protection Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality before making regulations in this respect.
Section 66C only applies to legitimate postcode activities undertaken by the postcode contractor, the Minister or value-added resellers. Consequently, the Data Protection Acts, 1988 and 2003, apply fully to the processing of personal data by end users or others.
Section 66D sets out the complaints procedure for postcodes. It puts in place adequate steps to safeguard the legitimate interests of owners and occupiers of properties.
Section 66E imposes a further statutory obligation on the postcode contractor to develop a data retention policy to ensure decommissioned postcodes will be retained for record keeping purposes.
The Bill will copperfasten the highest level of data protection for the postcodes project, ensuring the confidence of citizens and commercial entities in the implementation and operation of the system. In the interests of providing certainty for all market players, enabling the development of fair competition among VARs and enhancing the protection of postcode users, it is important that the most appropriate data protection framework is put in place swiftly.
I look forward to hearing the views of the Members of this House on this important legislation. I also look forward to the launch of the national postcode system in the summer as scheduled. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. We welcome this important legislation. I also thank the Minister for outlining the background to the postcode system.
Data protection is one thing but secrecy is another. It is of concern that not one page of the 700 page contract establishing the Eircode system is available under the Freedom of Information Act. As the Minister is aware, despite many requests, it became apparent that some of the communications in the Department were not made freely available. However, what was made freely available was that the advice the private consultancy company had given to the Government had been ignored on a number of key issues. Obviously, the hierarchical code the Minister mentioned was one of these issues. That is the system that works successfully in the North. Why would we bring in the State bodies and the commercial entities and pay consultants a fortune in money only to ignore them, as was done in the case of Irish Water? That is a matter of concern.
The Minister spoke about the ambulance service. With a centralised call-out system, it is important to have postcodes because paramedics and ambulance drivers no longer have local knowledge. A hierarchical code would mean that people would automatically know they were going in the right direction. If somebody was to give the wrong digit but also an address, he or she might realise the error. Much of the time a person will key the code into a Sat Nav and if there is a wrong digit, as can happen in an emergency, if there was a hierarchical code, the paramedics would know there was an error in the code given. That all came from the wide consultation that there should be a hierarchical code, but that did not happen. These are matters of concern.
The legislation before us on data protection is not a source of major dispute, other than the 700 page contract in terms of the pricing of access to the database. There was no consultation on the pricing of access to the database.
The Bill is relatively short and we will discuss details further on Committee Stage. There is concern that there is no requirement for some things to happen and they are more vague than I would like. I am sure the Minister is also concerned.
Section 66A(4) states, "Every regulation made under this Part shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made and, if a resolution annulling...". However, there is no requirement as when that might happen. It states that it "shall be laid ... as soon as may be after it is made", but it does not state if there is any requirement as to when it might be made.
Section 66D(1) states, "The postcode contractor shall draw up procedures for dealing with complaints by an owner or occupier of property". Again, that is about timelines. It is rather vague compared with what I would like to see in legislation.
Section 66D(5) states, "The postcode contractor shall notify the complainant concerned in writing of the reasons for its decision". It is just a matter of timelines and it might be dealt with in regulations. As we know in other areas, particularly in planning, before we introduced specific timeframes in which planning issues had to be dealt with, it used to go on for months. There was considerable uncertainty as a result. If someone has a complaint, the postcode contractor should notify the complainant concerned in writing of the decision within 60 or 90 days. I am not the expert on how long would be reasonable, but it would be reasonable to specify a timeframe.
Section 66D(7) states:
The Minister may, by regulations, make provision for the following:
(a) the procedure to be followed in investigating complaints;
(b) the requirements to be complied with by complainants;
(c) the remedies and redress available to complainants;
I think it should read "shall" rather than "may". If we go to the bother of introducing data protection regulations, there should be an onus on the Department to introduce the regulations for complaints, redress and remedies for it.
They are only technical issues in dealing with the Bill. If the Data Protection Commissioner believed he needed more assistance in that regard, I do not think we would object to this. The issue is with the more technical elements. Obviously, we will not reopen the debate on the consultants' report, but I thought I would mention it as we were talking about it in the first place.
I welcome the Minister and the Bill on postcodes. The purpose of the Bill is to amend parts of the Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Act 2011. It is particularly important for the introduction of Ireland's seven-digit postcode system this year. Ireland is one of the last remaining countries in the world to introduce a national postcode system. This has to be welcomed by both the public and businesses.
It will be far easier once the system goes live for post to be delivered. With Eircode, the first three characters of the code will provide the routing key. These are designed to help in the postal sorting process and the logistics industry. The remaining four characters will provide the unique identifier which will identify each individual address. They will not be sequential, allowing for the insertion of new addresses as houses, etc. are built and added.
We should be able to locate addresses more efficiently with this new system. In addition, medical emergency services where an ambulance has to be called will be able to respond faster, especially in rural areas. Unfortunately, there have been some cases in which ambulance crews not familiar with a rural area have got lost and arrived very late following a call-out.
I hope Sat Nav providers will update their systems in conjunction with the new system.
Postcodes have been a long time coming. On 23 May 2005, the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Noel Dempsey, announced that postcodes would be introduced on 1 January 2008. Seven years and three Ministers later, we are finally ready to go live. It is envisaged that the system will go live once this Bill passes through both Houses and is signed by the President. I urge Members to support the Bill.
The purpose of this amending legislation is to address the public's concerns about data protection and privacy. We need to ensure only legitimate postcode activities are carried out. The Bill will regulate how information is collected and distributed by the postcode contractor and reseller of postcode databases. We are all aware of the amount of advertising mail that is put through postboxes every day. We need to protect the privacy of householders who are about to be allocated new postcodes. Legitimate postcode activities are set out in the proposed section 65A(2) to be inserted by the Bill. These include development and maintenance of a postcode; management of the postcode database; incorporation of address aliases into databases to allow for the association of geoco-ordinates with the new system; dissemination of postcodes on behalf of the contractor or the Minister by An Post, a universal postal service provider or such other person the Minister considers appropriate; matching of addresses to postcodes for reselling with the provision that the name of the occupant or owner of the property is not identified; and licensing of the postcode address database to a value-added reseller or end user with certain criteria being observed. The Minister has ensured the Data Protection Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality will be consulted if there is need to broaden the scope of the legislation in respect of privacy. I welcome this legislation and agree that data protection in relation to the new postcodes has to be strong. A complaints procedure is provided for under the proposed section 66D and a statutory code of practice by the contractor is provided for in the proposed section 66E.
In January 2014, Capita Business Support Services Ireland was awarded a ten-year contract to operate and maintain the postcode service. I hope that company is successful in delivering a postcode system of which the country can be proud. It may have taken ten years to develop a postcode system but at least it is starting now.
I welcome the Minister as we put the final piece of the jigsaw in place to finally give Ireland its own postcode system. We are not reinventing the wheel, but this system is not before its time. We are the only country in the OECD without our own postcode system. Given that we pride ourselves on being a progressive, thriving and smart economy, I cannot believe it has taken so long to develop the system. The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications held hearings on the matter to allow various groups to raise issues about the process. I listened carefully to those who expressed concerns and opposing views, but I still cannot understand how this postcode system could be opposed. The process of developing it was thorough and onerous and the system as devised is robust and meets high standards.
It is welcome that the Minister has decided to take a belt and braces approach with this legislation to ensure security of the data protection system. The Bill will address any remaining concerns in this regard and it paves the way for the roll-out of the new postcode system this summer. Most people will welcome postcodes, particularly those involved in businesses or logistics. As someone who lives in rural Ireland, I answer my door every day to people who have called to the wrong address. People living in the countryside often facilitate each other by accepting deliveries on behalf of their neighbours. This can be a nuisance if one is waiting on a delivery, however, because it can cause delays. On a more serious note, it can also delay emergency services. Ambulances and fire services are dispatched through a centralised system. The system is not without its shortcomings, one of which is the lack of local knowledge. I have first-hand experience of fire tenders and ambulances being directed to the wrong location because of the lack of a detailed address. Time delays can have dire consequences, but I hope the new postcode system will be embraced by the emergency services and ensures a prompt and precise response to calls. This system can save lives if it is used effectively.
There was unnecessary confusion over the roll-out and ownership of the new system. The legislation provides clearly that the postcode system will remain the property of the State and postcodes will be free to members of the public.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. He was demoted to the Lower House several years ago, but he was previously an active Member of this House. I look forward to hearing Members' views and, I hope, a healthy debate on this Bill. I was the chairman of An Post in the 1980s. After we introduced postcodes in Dublin, we constructed a new sorting office on Fortfield Road and told the people in that part of the city they would be in Dublin 26 instead of Dublin 6. This resulted in an uproar, with people arguing their homes would be devalued if they were in Dublin 26 because Tallaght was in Dublin 24. We solved the problem by designating the area as Dublin 6W in the expectation that we would introduce postcodes shortly thereafter. Residents warned us that they would not use the Dublin 26 postcode even if it meant letters addressed to them would be a day late arriving.
Britain was the first country to introduce alphanumeric postcodes. Every other country used either numbers or letters but not both. Concerns were expressed at the time about whether it was wise to introduce alphanumeric postcodes but the system appears to have worked. The postcode system for Ireland looks rather technical. I am glad that the Bill takes into account the lessons we learned from the Irish Water controversies, especially in regard to taking information from customers. In the Irish Water case it was PPS numbers and in the case of this Bill it is postcodes.
The new system has been criticised by those who may have to rely on it for life and death issues. Mr. John Kidd of the Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association stated:
Eircodes has been designed for a post-based system. We'd like a system where zero codes are combined with that. What does that mean for us in emergency services? In the event I get a 999 call for fire, ambulance or An Garda Síochána, I know where you're phoning from. The new postcode could be REG 315 in Donnybrook or REG 316 in Darndale. All we have to do is make a digit wrong and we are going to a totally different area.
I have a query about the company selected to implement Eircode, Capita, which states these concerns have been answered. It is a concern that this late in the day people such as emergency workers are raising these legitimate concerns. What really jolted me is that DHL, Fedex and UPS have all told the committee that they will not use the postcode system. I would like to hear the Minister's response to this. Those companies are major multinationals and it is extraordinary that they are planning not to use the code. Mr. Bobby Kerr has issued his report on the business future of An Post. I think it was a great idea to have Mr. Kerr examine the company. I ask the Minister to comment on whether the business development group was asked to look at the postcode issue as there is no mention of it in the report. It would have been very useful to get the views of someone with such business experience on whether the system is viable from a business perspective. It sets major alarm bells ringing with me when DHL, Fedex and UPS, world-renowned companies, have rejected the scheme. Given that Mr. Kerr's report is only an interim report I suggest the Minister put the Eircode system on hold for the time being until Mr. Kerr's business development group analyses the viability of Eircode from a purely business perspective. That would be very worthwhile.
Sometimes in business one must hold back until a project is ready for the market. In the case of Eircode I do not believe it is ready for the market just yet. It seems extraordinary that if a person orders something online and puts in the new postcode a courier company delivering the item will not even use that postcode. It seems quite ironic that the Government has been talking about giving business opportunities to An Post yet it has given the postcode contract to Capita.
I ask the Minister to state whether the postcode contractor, currently Capita, will pass on postcodes in order for them to be used to follow up on people to pay property tax. Will the Minister state whether the postcode contractor will not pass on postcodes for the identification of people who have not paid the water charges? People are legally obliged to pay these charges, but it is important that postcodes should not be misused. We saw how Irish Water obtained the PPS numbers. It is very important for the Minister to put these statements on the record of the House. If he cannot do so I would be interested to know why it is not possible.
When I was running the loyalty card scheme in my own business, it was a priority to fully comply with the data protection legislation to ensure that the information was not misused or given to a third party. There is a justifiable concern over the potential for people to get even more junk mail and that postcodes will be obtained or sold to third parties. On the possibility to fine the postcode contractor I have concerns that the postcode contractor will investigate complaints relating to the use of postcodes by the postcode contractor or a value-added reseller. It seems absurd but that should not be the case. The Data Protection Commissioner should be responsible for complaints. In addition, this Bill should include a provision to dissuade the postcode contractor from giving out postcodes. This could be in the form of a large fine. Can the Minister state why the possibility of fining the contractor if it gives out postcodes to third parties is not included in the Bill? Can he state whether the Government would be open to an amendment to include a provision for a fine in this case? It should be an offence for the postcode contractor to hand out postcodes to certain parties.
The idea of a State e-mail address to cut down on paper and time is a somewhat related topic but in this day and age it is amazing that State bodies send letters when they could send official notification via e-mail. For instance, it would make much more sense for hospital appointments to be e-mailed to a verified e-mail address. I refer to the example of Denmark where legislation was introduced to ensure that businesses have digital postboxes, a registered e-mail address, in order that they can receive secure communication from the State or State authorities. Denmark is now beginning to replace physical mail with a digital postal service and it is now compulsory for members of the public to register on the Internet their change of address on immigration, marriage application or even to report the theft of a bicycle. The aim is to move 80% of communications with public authorities in Denmark from paper to the web by the end of the year. It is estimated that this will save €300 million. In this day and age why are State institutions such as hospitals still sending out letters for appointments? Denmark has recognised that this is a thing of the past. They estimate it will save paper and money and it will make information more secure.
In 1983 I went to Tallaght to see for the first time something called a fax machine. I was able to send a fax to New York and receive a message by return. I thought it would threaten the future of the postal service. However, it was decided to use the modern technology and a fax machine was installed in every post office. I have great confidence in An Post and its senior management and in particular because it has the support from Mr. Kerr who is advising and suggesting in those areas. It is possible to say that there are changes taking place. Every citizen in Ireland could have an official State e-mail address to facilitate communications from the tax office, the courts, the hospital or the post office, for example, without the need for a physical letter communication. Masses of paper and printing costs would be saved by State bodies which would save money and time as well as paper. There could be an opt-out for people unfamiliar with technology, including the elderly, but it would encourage more people in business to go online and it would show to the world that Ireland is a very advanced place to do business. An Post could be a leading force if we decide to go down this route. We have the right people in An Post and we have the right people such as Bobby Kerr. We should be looking at this issue now as I have no doubt whatsoever that this system will be introduced. I think we should be one of the first countries to do it and we should take the lead rather than be a late adopter. The State e-mail address could bring many more benefits for ordinary people and businesses and savings for the State as opposed to what I think is a flawed postcode system. I believe it needs to be looked at again and I urge the Minister to rethink whether it would be better to delay in order to get the advice of people who have a very interested view on it.
I welcome the Minister. I agree with the previous speaker that it is a flawed project which needs to be re-examined. I will not oppose the Bill on Second Stage because it is important to move on to Committee Stage where we can discuss these issues in more detail. Second Stage is an opportunity for us to present the general concerns about the Bill.
The first and obvious question is why this system is being introduced and how much will it cost. The Department is projecting that the cost to the State will be in the region of €27 million. Some argue it could be more. Normally a project with technical specifications is an attempt to fix a clear problem that has been identified. There has been much murmuring from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources about the lack of a postcode system in Ireland but there has yet to be a definitive answer as to what problem Eircode is addressing. We are told that Ireland is the only OECD country without a postcode system but is addressing this issue a vanity project for the Government or does it fulfil a specific function? It is for the Minister to convince us. It is a very expensive vanity project if it is to tackle a problem that one official from the Department identified. He stated that the public was tired of making up postcodes every time they were doing business on websites and explaining to people how it was that Ireland was the only country in the OECD that did not have a postcode system.
There is a postcode system in place in Ireland which is called Loc8. The system is used by the Sat Nav company, Garmin, and by the HSE. The system was offered free of charge to the Government in 2013 but it was not availed of. I ask the Minister to explain why that was the case.
The expected cost for consultation is projected to be in the region of €1.8 million, according to the Department. Questions remain to be answered as to the level at which individuals, or companies, who advised the Department at various stages are now involved in ongoing project management. The question of the cost to several Departments of the implementation of Eircode remains unanswered. The Departments of Health and Social Protection, for example, will require a large upgrade of their IT systems if they wish to assign an Eircode to every file on their databases. Before Eircode comes into force it must be made clear what impact it will have on each and every existing Department. I do not know if the Minister has that information. If he has then I ask him to share it with us.
The roll-out of the system will clearly involve a large technical specification if it is to be adopted by Government agencies in assisting them with their work. Recently Sinn Féin asked the Minister for Social Protection for the projected cost of implementing the Eircode system in her Department. Even though her response was as follows: "The initial phase will be completed in 2015," we still do not know the cost. She continued, "To this end, the project governance committee of the Department has approved the issue of a supplementary request for tender to a framework of approved bidders in order to implement the technical changes required to the IT systems of the Department." Has that happened in other Departments? She continued, "The associated costs of this initial phase will be known on completion of this technical work." I assume the cost involved will be significant as a significant number of people are in receipt of payments, ranging from children's allowance to pensions, from the Department of Social Protection. If each person on the system must be now allocated with a unique Eircode attached to his or her address then it will require a significant upgrading of the Department's IT system.
A number of bodies have raised serious issues about the Eircode system. The Freight Transport Association of Ireland has expressed concern about the system and pointed out that it is only a postal solution. For example, if a building does not have a letterbox, such as a warehouse or an agricultural unit, then the Eircode system would be of no use to freight carriers. Earlier a Senator said some courier companies would not use the system.
The Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association represents front-line emergency staff and it has expressed serious concern about Eircode. It has claimed that because the system does not identify small local areas it will be of little or no benefit to emergency call-outs that are along roads or in industrial or transport infrastructure. It is also not helped by the fact that Eircode will not be on street signs and most likely, therefore, will be known only to the person living at the specific address.
I have given a flavour of some of the concerns that people have expressed. The Minister will have addressed some of those concerns in his opening contribution, but some of the more specific ones need to be answered. We will have a more wholesome and specific debate on Committee Stage which may take place next week.
As there are no other Senators offering, I call Senator Gerard P. Craughwell.
That is wonderful. One always knows that it is time to go when I get on my feet. I usually sit here for hours waiting for Senators to finish their contributions in order that I might have a miserable few seconds to say something.
The Minister is welcome. I think this is the first time I have addressed him in this House and I shall try to make it as painless as possible.
The Bill the Minister has brought forward is to ensure the public interest is served in regard to undertaking a legitimate postcode activity so that the processing of any personal data, in postcodes, enables databases to be in compliance with data protection. There are many serious concerns to be expressed here, and not just about the Bill but about the entire Eircode project. Eircode is a flawed concept and may end up, at best, unusable or unused by Irish citizens and, at worst, cost lives in cases where emergency services cannot locate a person due to the random selection of four characters of the seven character code.
I shall begin today with the issue of data protection. Since the project was first moved there have been serious data protection concerns. We are aware that the Data Protection Commissioner, in 2004, advised the Department not to use unique identifying codes for privacy reasons. One of the main stakeholders, Digital Rights Ireland, is equally concerned. It stated:
We want to state clearly that we are not at all ‘satisfied’ with the postcode that has been designed or the implementation proposals. Our view is that you are taking a dangerous and needless step into the unknown by going ahead with the code as currently proposed. We gave details of an immediate privacy problem that will present itself immediately after launch. We warned that the mitigating measures that the Department is proposing would not really help, and might even be a distraction from other critical project issues. We warned that the legal protections of the data protection regime would be largely unenforceable in the context of global Internet advertising networks.
The organisation also mentioned several other things but continued:
That said, we are puzzled as to how the firmly conveyed views of the Data Protection Commissioner about individual house coding were put to one side when the requirements for the code were totally revised without consultation in 2010.
My colleague, Senator Mark Daly, referred to the secrecy surrounding Eircode and it seems we have another Irish Water situation. There is a 700-page contract that nobody can see. The contract is not available for access through a FOI request and several organisations have requested it under freedom of information. What does that say about the openness and transparency we were promised when the Government was elected?
The Minister mentioned the ambulance service, in particular. From what I can gather, the emergency services, and in particular their members who are in trade unions that serve those services, are not at all impressed by the code and have some serious concerns about same.
The online industry will not use the codes because they are not compulsory. They have deemed them to have no use whatsoever and claim they will distract more than anything else.
I understand the Garmin and TomTom companies have stated they will not use the postcodes in their GPS systems. That is a failure. Any Member who has been in the States, continental Europe or the United Kingdom will know that one simply types in a postcode and one is brought directly to the house. If Garmin and TomTom are not impressed then where does that leave us?
Yesterday, a number of Senators - I certainly did - received communications from the Global Addresses Data Association. The title of the document the association sent to me was "When is a postcode not a postcode?" and it rubbished the entire postcode system that has been put forward.
Today, Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned that we might use the Internet and email. My God, where are we going to use email? I watched a programme on television a few nights ago and it showed that there is simply no broadband in half of this country. That means there is no access to e-mail, to Internet services and our businesses are struggling.
The bottom line is that I shall bring forward some amendments to this Bill because I believe the Bill is flawed. I believe the overall project is seriously flawed. When one considers the randomised nature of the postcodes that are used it is a total nonsense. I also believe the system will put lives at risk rather than make ambulance services find addresses easily, particularly if we have the sort of resistance we have right now.
The Acting Chairman has been very good to allow me a few moments of his time and I am extremely grateful. When the Independent Group is formed next week, with me as its leader and only member, I will be given plenty of time.
The revolution has started.
Every democratically elected Member is entitled to speak here, in turn. I thank Senator Gerard P. Craughwell.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell will not mind me playfully querying how an Independent group could have a leader. Perhaps he might explain that to me on another day.
It is like herding cats.
I thank my colleagues and Senators for their thoughtful and insightful contributions. In the first instance, I thank Senator Mark Daly, but I shall thank all the Senators sequentially as it will be quicker.
In response to the questions of why recommendations are reviewed and why a sequential code was not proceeded with, I shall outline the fundamental reason which I mentioned in my opening remarks.
In excess of 35% of all address points in this jurisdiction are non-unique addresses, which is significantly higher than any other comparable OECD country. After considerable deliberation and analysis, the decision was made that a unique identifier best meets the needs of the Irish addressing problem by uniquely identifying properties that share the same address. We think it is manifestly sustainable in the sense that there is no requirement to reassign or change existing Eircodes where there is new build. Area codes have the potential to lead to Eircode discrimination where they are sequential - so-called Eircode ghettos where an area can be identified and targeted in unacceptable ways. We have seen that happen elsewhere.
Area codes can lead to loss of anonymity and privacy issues in areas of non-unique addresses. That is something we are addressing. Area codes can also lead to capacity issues. The unique Eircode design, however, allows for more than 250,000 codes to be assigned to each post town, of which there are approximately 139 in Ireland. We are, therefore, able to take advantage of technological advances, and can have regard to all of the changes that have taken place which can be integrated into this new system. It is a unique system but one that I believe will work for our particular needs in this country.
I welcome the support of Senators Tony Mulcahy and John Whelan for the intended action on Eircodes. In some sense, what Senator Tony Mulcahy said essentially answered Senator Feargal Quinn's remarks. People often say that in Ireland we have an implementation deficit disorder, as it has been described. We have been at this for ten years or more. People may disagree on the choice of design, but if anybody thinks this has been done without deliberation, analysis or consultation, including extensive consultation with business and other users and potential users, they would be mistaken. I assure the House that this has been dealt with, analysed, prepared and designed to a considerable level of detail. I am saying this in response to what Senator David Cullinane said.
Senator Mark Daly was concerned about some guideline issues, including the use of "may" or "shall". I can tell him that the regulations are being drafted in the Department; therefore, there will be no concern about any delay.
A complaints process is dealt with extensively in the code of practice, which has been drafted in consultation with the contractor. As regards the items set out in the regulations, one can see that a complaints procedure is incorporated in the Bill; therefore, we will have a high level of clarity in advance.
I wish to query one of Senator Gerard P. Craughwell's remarks, which I disagree with and think is unfortunate. That is the notion that the Eircodes could cause a risk to life. Let us be fair-minded. The Eircodes will do something additional to what is in place. Even an individual who is strongly opposed to them must acknowledge that this is an add-on to what is already in place.
I believe I am not the only one who said it here.
The Minister to continue, without interruption, please.
As it is an additional facility, there will still be addresses. All the local knowledge and experience that people have will still be available. They will not be wiped out and we are not deleting anything. We are not deleting addresses from the national memory. This is something additional.
One can make the argument as to whether the additional facility will be an improvement or otherwise, but the worst case scenario is that the current situation would simply continue. To say that it will lead to loss of life is unfortunate and an unfair criticism.
My Department has briefed all the emergency services on this project. Our first concern is the emergency services and I accept that Senator Gerard P. Craughwell is right. The code will be available to all emergency services at whatever stage their systems are ready to exploit it. In some cases business concerns may not be ready to exploit this particular form of postcode, at least from day one. The national ambulance service, however, is already constructing a computer-aided dispatch system to use Eircodes. It will be deployed in the new state-of-the-art national call centre during the course of the year.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell mentioned one representative body and he knows exactly what I am referring to. There are trade union interests, of course, and this is one group that made statements some months ago. I wish to make clear, however, that the National Ambulance Service on which we rely so much and which has done such a terrific job, has welcomed the introduction of Eircodes as they will facilitate the speedier deployment of its services. That is what they have told me and it has been made very clear. They are looking forward to the launch of the Eircodes, which will assist in locating addresses.
The point has been made that some businesses say they will not use the system. It may well be that some businesses will not use the system from day one, but I confidently predict that as the months go by, a lot of businesses, including dispatch firms, will start to use the system, especially if their competitors are doing so. The well known and successful courier company Nightline, for example, is enthusiastically supportive of this project. It has stated this to me both privately and publicly. I confidently predict that when competitors see the success of the Eircode system as the months progress, they will use it also.
As regards Senator Feargal Quinn's comment, I cannot say whether Irish Water proposes to use the system. That is a business decision for that operation and we will see whether it makes that decision. Many public services, Departments and agencies will use the Eircode system and are gearing up to use it.
This Bill is about data protection. It is about ensuring there could be no doubt about the protection of data and citizens' rights in respect of their data. We are not in a position to roll back or unpick the work of many years on preparing this design.
Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned Mr. Bobby Kerr whom I appointed to a working group on the future of the post office network. He recently gave me his interim report, which is excellent. It really points the way for the future success of the post office network. I will continue to work with Mr. Kerr, as I am sure Senators will, to provide their views on the business rural and urban post offices can attract in the future.
The Eircode project is separate, although linked, and I do not propose to stall it in the way Senator Feargal Quinn has urged me to do. We have now reached an important milestone with the publication of this legislation to protect citizens in order that, in Senator John Whelan's words, there will be a belt and braces approach to data protection. Senator Feargal Quinn asked if fines would be levied for the improper use of data. The Eircode is attached to an address, not an individual. Once the Eircode is associated with any personal identifier, like a name, it engages the protection of the Data Protection Acts which contain and include extensive powers to ensure compliance, including fines.
The Data Protection Acts apply in any use of personal data. All of these protections remain and will be available to any aggrieved citizen should an issue arise in the future.
This legislation is necessary to give additional protection in the use of the postcode. I am talking about the postcode shorn of any identifier because once it is possible to link the Eircode with an individual the Data Protection Acts will kick in. It is a belt and braces approach. The Eircode simpliciter - the bare Eircode - is being given additional protection in this legislation against misuse. I reassure Senator Feargal Quinn that all data protection legislation remains in place.
Senator David Cullinane asked about costs. The cost to the Exchequer of the roll-out in the ten-year cycle of the contract is expected to be €27 million. These costs cover design, database upgrades, media and Eircode distribution. The cost of the contract will be €16 million in the first two years and a further €1.2 million per annum for the remaining eight years of the contract.
I am sure the Chairman wants me to move as quickly as possible, but I wish to reply to Senators. Senator David Cullinane also asked what the benefits were and what the business need was for Eircodes. They are very significant and improved efficiency and accuracy of internal business processes will be possible as a result of the improved accuracy and consistency of databases across the public and private sectors, facilitating the accurate location of all addresses in the State, making it easier for consumers to shop online and quicker and easier for emergency services to locate addresses and delivering improved efficiencies as regards logistics and better planning. As I went through all of these points earlier, I will not detain the House with them again.
On public service costs, the Department is compiling an impact register that details the costs and benefits which a selection of public service bodies expect to encounter in their interaction with the national postcode system after it is launched in the summer. To date, 20 public service bodies have completed questionnaires. I can provide further information for Senator David Cullinane and the House on costs, if they so wish. These costs will be greatly outweighed by the benefits that will accrue to individual citizens, in the management and operation of public services, to business, in online trading, to the emergency services and in all of the economic and social activity we want to promote.
The Data Protection Commissioner has acknowledged the publication of the Bill and views this legislation as positive because of the way it underpins the implementation and operation of the Eircode system and ensures essential data protection safeguards are put in place. The legislation deals with data protection. I understand Senators want to use the opportunity to raise broader issues, particularly on Second Stage, but we are not coming to the House with the original proposal. We are coming with an additional set of safeguards in primary legislation to ensure there can be no residual concerns about the protection of individual citizens' data. It is extremely important to do this.
If I have forgotten anything, I look forward to addressing it on Committee Stage, as well as amendments Senators might wish to bring forward.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 2.30 p.m. next Tuesday.