The Department of Health has defended plans to destroy documents submitted to the Surgical Symphysiotomy Payment Scheme.

In a statement, the department said "it is important to note that only copy medical records have ever been received by the scheme".

It said the originals remain "with hospitals or possibly with a solicitor if providing assistance to an applicant".

Administrators of the scheme have written to applicants offering to return the documents and a department of health spokesman said "they can be returned by post or by courier".

The department said under data protection rules it must destroy documents, if the applicants do not want them back.

Applicants have until 20 March to decide how they would like the scheme to act.

To date the scheme has paid out €26m in 356 awards to women who had a surgical symphysiotomy.

The Office of the Data Commissioner has said the assessor the Symphysiotomy Payment Scheme appears to be acting in compliance with the Data Protection Acts by offering to destroy records.

Under the Data Protection Act an individual's personal data must "not processed beyond the purpose for which it is collected" or "retained for no longer than is necessary".

In a statement, the Office of the Data Commission said that the scheme "undertook to ensure that all relevant applicants will receive adequate and direct written notice of their options in relation to their personal data".

Survivors of symphysiotomy have appealed to Minister for Health Leo Varadkar to stop the planned destruction of data relating to their cases.

The records of hundreds of survivors were made available to the redress scheme, which was set up by the Government to compensate women who underwent a procedure.

The Department of Health said the women could have the documents, which are copies, returned to them, or they would be destroyed.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is concerned, saying many of the women never received letters and were not aware that the documents would be destroyed.

It wants all the documents sent back to the women.

The surgical procedure to break the pelvis during childbirth to allow a baby to be born was performed between 1944 and 1984.

Long-term effects for most women included impaired walking, chronic pain and incontinence.