Adjournment Motion – Revised EU data protection Legislation and the rights of citizens

Tuesday, 9th July 2013

Senator Jillian van Turnhout:

I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

I am aware that an informal meeting of Ministers for Justice and Home Affairs will be taking place at the end of next week in Vilnius and understand that the general data protection regulation is the agenda of that meeting.

I have been contacted by a number of people in the genealogical community who are concerned that the European Commission plans to unify data protection within the European Union with a single law, the general data protection regulation, which may have unintended consequences. I have specifically been contacted by Michael Merrigan, general secretary of the Genealogical Society of Ireland who, in turn, has been contacted by the Genealogical Society of Finland. I thank them for the information with which they have provided me.
I have a keen interest in researching my family history and have first-hand experience of accessing resources through my research. I realise the sensitivity of some data and so understand that we need to protect privacy. We have all welcomed the renewed focus on genealogy due to events surrounding The Gathering. In addition, the Government has proactively engaged in the provision of online access to genealogical resources through the national repositories and its genealogy web portal . I am also aware of the sheer dedication and work by genealogists such as Stuart Rosenblatt who has provided the State with an invaluable 16 volume archive spanning more than four centuries. He is a guiding example to us all.

The recent report published by the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to its hearings in relation to the draft general scheme of the Freedom of Information Bill highlighted the need to seek the inclusion in the proposed legislation of the following as a guiding principle by which record holders, the State and State agencies, would give public access to records with a genealogical potential by the inclusion of a section that states that the legislation endorses and fully supports the principle of public ownership and right of access to our genealogical heritage. Doing it in this way will allow statutory instruments and departmental guidelines to take cognisance of the principle when assessing public accessibility to records with a genealogical potential.

I am cognisant that an EU regulation must be observed by all member states. The impact of the inclusion of civil registration records in the scope of the data protection directive, if that is what is proposed, would have a very detrimental impact on genealogical, biographical and historical research. While such a measure would have no impact on existing public access to genealogical resources held by the National Library and the National Archives, it could create an atmosphere of fear of litigation on the part of custodians of records of genealogical potential.

Can the Minister ensure that the revised EU data protection directive-regulation does not impair the right of the citizen to engage in bona fide genealogical, biographical or historical research and that the principle of public ownership and right of access to our genealogical heritage will be enshrined as a guiding principle? I believe genealogy should be expressly mentioned in the regulation and hope that the Minister of State can give us assurances today.

On a specific point, Article 6, paragraph 2, of the regulation should be rewritten so that it makes an exception from the general principle for processing of personal data, namely, the data subject has given consent to the processing. As a result, it would not be necessary to request consent to processing of personal data when the purpose is historical research or genealogy.

I hope we can obtain assurances from the Minister of State that the access to genealogical, biographical or historical records will not be impaired and that we will be able to ensure public access for generations to come.

Minister John Perry:

I am here on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, who is unable to be present. I thank Senator van Turnhout for raising this important subject.

In the first instance, I will briefly set out the background to the European Commission’s proposals for reform of data protection law. The centrepiece of existing EU legislation on personal data protection is Directive 95/46/EC which seeks to reconcile the protection of personal data with the free flow of such data within the Internal Market and to countries outside the EU. It is widely recognised that the 1995 directive needs to be updated to take account of more recent developments such as increased use of the Internet, blogs and social networking sites and increasing globalisation of data transfers. In 2010, the Lisbon treaty introduced a new legal basis for strengthened data protection standards in the European Union, and Article 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU enshrines protection of personal data as a fundamental right.

In January 2012, following completion of an extensive consultation process, the European Commission tabled proposals for a radical shake-up of the current regulatory framework. These proposals are being discussed separately by the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament at present. Adoption of the reform package is subject to co-decision between both institutions. Article 5 of the Commission proposal for a general data protection regulation, which sets out the principles relating to personal data processing, recognises that it may be necessary to retain personal data for historical, statistical or scientific purposes. Article 83 sets out specific provisions for the processing of personal data for historic, statistical and scientific research purposes. While the Minister has until now not been made aware of the specific concerns of the genealogical sector, he is aware that concerns have been raised that the provisions in the Commission proposal are not sufficient to accommodate the processing of personal data for historical, statistical, scientific or archival purposes. The Minister shares these concerns.

As the Senator may be aware, achieving progress on the European Commission’s proposals to update the Union’s data protection standards was a priority of the Irish Presidency and I am pleased to say that substantial progress was achieved on key aspects of the reform package. In June, the Minister submitted a progress report to the Justice and Home Affairs Council, which identified key aspects of Chapters I to IV of the draft regulation. In addition, a draft revised text of Chapters I to IV, which reflects the view of the Minister, as the then President of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, of the state of play of negotiations at that stage, has been prepared. The Minister has arranged to have these documents laid before the Houses for the information of Deputies and Senators. The draft revised text includes a number of proposals, which have yet to be discussed in detail at expert level, to address concerns in respect of the implications of the draft regulation for the processing of personal data for historical, statistical or scientific purposes. I understand it is intended to discuss this issue at expert level shortly. The detailed discussions relating to these proposals will provide an opportunity to consider whether proposals to deal with the processing of personal data for historical, statistical or scientific research purposes are sufficient to cover archival purposes as well as bona fide genealogical and biographical research or whether specific provisions in this regard will be necessary.

The Minister believes that the concerns relating to the implications of the draft regulation for historical, statistical, scientific or archival purposes, including for bona fide genealogical and biographical purposes, must be examined further at expert level by the Council working party on data protection and exchange of information, DAPIX, and addressed, where necessary, by means of appropriate amendments to the regulation.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout:

I would appreciate it if copies of the Minister of State’s script could be made available. Traditionally, such scripts are provided to Members. It would be useful if we were able to examine its contents.
I thank the Minister of State for the assurances he provided. I reiterate the importance of including a specific reference to genealogy to ensure there will be public access to these records when such access is for bona fide purposes. I will correspond with the Minister for Justice and Equality on this issue because it is important that it be viewed in conjunction with the general data protection regulation.

Minister John Perry:

I will be happy to supply the Senator with a copy of my script. The European Commission tabled proposals for a radical shake-up of the existing data protection framework. Those proposals undoubtedly comprise one of the most important reform packages being discussed at EU level at present. Data protection affects all of us, whether in a private capacity as individuals, in a business or professional capacity or as users of personal data. It is for this reason that the Minister for Justice and Equality launched a public consultation process in March 2012 to seek the view and inputs of interested bodies and individuals in order to inform the negotiations on the proposal. The Minister continues to welcome such views and inputs on the implications of the draft regulation, particularly as discussions on this detailed and complex proposal are ongoing at European level. He would welcome the views and inputs of the Senator and others on the specific concerns which may exist in respect of the implications of the draft regulation for bona fide genealogical, biographical or historical research.

As stated, the protection of personal data is a fundamental right. However, the right to this protection coexists with other rights and this is recognised in the draft regulation. For example, Article 83 of the draft regulation sets out specific provisions for the processing of personal data for historic, statistical and scientific research purposes. The Minister is of the view that the draft regulation must be examined further to assess the implications of the proposals relating to the processing of personal data for historical, statistical, scientific or archival purposes. He would, therefore, welcome any specific amendments to the draft regulation which are considered necessary to accommodate bona fide genealogical, biographical or historical research or which take account of the need to provide high levels of data protection to individuals.

On behalf of the Minister, I again thank Senator van Turnhout for raising this important issue.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout:

I thank the Minister of State and I will communicate the information he has provided to the Genealogical Society of Ireland and the wider genealogical community.

The Lancet

In July 2021, Jillian co-authored an article in the world-renowned medical journal “The Lancet”