Naming RHI firms 'may breach data protection laws'
Any move to publish the names of people and businesses which availed of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme could have major implications for data protection.
Businesses which have benefited from the botched scheme - which is likely to cost the taxpayer up to £400m - have been told that their names could be published next month by the Department for the Economy.
However Clare Bates, a partner at law firm Carson McDowell, said publishing the information could be contrary to the Data Protection Act (DPA).
The Department for the Economy has written to all businesses and asked them to decide if they will provide permission for their names to be published. If they agree, both the company name and the name of its owner would be put on the public record.
Ms Bates said: "The DPA applies to living individuals, which in theory should mean that companies or groups shouldn't benefit from the protections it puts in place.
"However, the position isn't so clear-cut. Personal data is defined by the Act in terms of whether a living individual can be identified from the data. So if the grant was paid, for example to a limited company with two shareholders, they could be easily identified from the data available.
"If the names of the recipients were published and this information could be used to learn something about an identifiable individual, then it would also be considered personal data and should be protected under the terms of DPA. The public interest cannot be considered a carte blanche when it comes to accessing information held by public authorities."
She added: "Given the complexities surrounding this area of law, we recommend those involved carefully consider their position and, if necessary, seek legal advice before providing their response."