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'If you post one out I'll cut it up and send it back': The PSC has people both enraged and deeply confused

Both the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Road Safety Authority have walked into a blizzard of criticism over the expansion of the Public Services Card (PSC).

shutterstock_710256160 Source: Shutterstock/Hanna Kuprevich

QUERIES AND COMPLAINTS to two bodies intimately entwined with the expansion of the Public Services Card (PSC) show that misinformation, anger, and issues with the basic work of that process are par for the course among Irish citizens.

In documents received by TheJournal.ie under Freedom of Information, it’s revealed that the Road Safety Authority (RSA) and, particularly, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) have been inundated with criticism and plain bafflement as to how the expansion is set to work.

DEASP is the government department most commonly associated with the PSC, as the card was initially introduced there to streamline social welfare claims in 2012.

As of August of this year, the PSC has become the default tool for accessing all of DEASP’s services, leading to a concerted drive by the department to expand the card’s user base.

This has not been uniformly well-received, to put it mildly.

Between January and September of this year myriad complaints were received by DEASP concerning both the card and its expansion, covering a range of concerns.

1022 PSC centre_90522212 The Public Services Card Centre on D'Olier Street in central Dublin Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

The plans for the expansion of the card cover all welfare services, yet knowledge as to what it actually entails can be hard to come by going by the subject matter of some complaints, which suggest further problems with communication on the part of the department.

‘Little sympathy’

Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath lodged a complaint on behalf of a citizen living with a disability in March, asking DEASP to respond. The individual in question had been led to believe via a post online that the PSC would eventually be used as a sort of debit card for welfare services, with unused disability payments being reclaimed by the department (note: this is not the case):

“I am 35 years old with spinal injuries and mobility issues. How would I be able to spend the balance on my card? Any money not spent will be taken back by the department. From past experience I know how little sympathy the Department of Social Protection has for disabled people.”

In a similar vein, another citizen requests to know why Irish farmers are excluded from having a PSC (again, this is not the case).

The seeming absurdity of needing a passport to apply for a PSC which in turn is then needed to apply for a renewal of a passport is not lost on one complainant:

“There are people who have purchased a passport purely to present as part of their PSC application and who will never travel out of the country,” they say.

I believe that these people should be reimbursed, if they have incurred any cost for applying.

Another complaint from mid-May covers an issue that, anecdotally, has been a persistent cause for concern – people being summoned to PSC appointments in jurisdictions far from their home:

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“Can I suggest that those promoting this device be asked to a) operate outside the (office working hours) and outside Monday to Friday, and facilitate registration in the office closest to their workplace.

At the very least, provide a map on the back of the letter so that we can find the damn office in a strange town.

Legally sound?

The age-old problem regarding the PSC is repeatedly raised – its legality. “What is the total extent of information that will be stored on a PSC? I would also like to know what protection is being urged by the Data Commissioner to ensure the information being stored is properly protected,” one person wrote to then DEASP Minister Leo Varadkar in early June.

“I would point out that the legislation (currently in place) does not require a claimant to have a PSC. The original purpose of the PSC seems to have been subsumed into a greater secret policy of introducing identity cards into Ireland,” another writes.

The legal basis or otherwise for expanding the PSC (which has never been debated in the Dáil) is an issue that has dogged the card for many months, particularly when it comes to its expansion to other state services, such as passport renewals and driver theory test applications.

“When did the state start issuing identity cards without legislation,” is the question fired at current Minister Regina Doherty in late August. “When did my passport which is my ONLY form of identity in this state become redundant and why didn’t you as a government minister inform me that said document is now redundant.

I was going to end this email with regards but how can I have regards for a government minister who now appears to be overruling privacy laws with the impunity of all the world’s dictatorships.

Fine Gael’s Dara Murphy, on behalf of another constituent, asks Doherty’s parliamentary assistant some reasonably definitive questions as to the lack of legislation and debate over the card:

“There have been far too many cases of data being transferred incorrectly between departments without proper controls. I strongly believe that individuals should be able to trust government departments with this data, but to do that there must be a way to verify that the data is being using in accordance for the reasons it was provided. This is not happening. This is exactly the reason a debate in the Dáil is required.”

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Child benefit

Independent TD Michael Lowry asked a pertinent question of Doherty, also in late August, and again on behalf of a constituent:

“Will children be punished for their parents’ reluctance to submit to the PSC process? Will payments like the Children’s Allowance be cut off in such circumstances?”

Such concerns are borne out by at least three complaints, one woman bemoaning her receiving a letter threatening “to cut off my child benefit if I fail to register”.

“I have always provided sufficient evidence of both her (my daughter) and my identity in the past and wish to continue to use that system – I have significant data protection concerns about this card.”

Another mail to by-then Taoiseach Varadkar seeks to make him “aware of my displeasure at yet another attempt by this state to sneak in a National Identity Card”.

I have to ask why this State seems intent on imposing its wishes on its citizenry rather than accepting their wishes, as would a functioning democracy. There seems to be something quite askew in the civil service, where such schemes seem to fester.

Mandatory/Not compulsory

Doherty’s by-now infamous statement that the PSC is “mandatory, but not compulsory” also comes in for a grilling in early September:

“Could you please explain why my son needs to take time off school to apply for a card he will use once?”

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I have heard you on the radio explaining the card is not compulsory but I have looked at the list of services it is needed for and to say it is not compulsory is stretching things a little.

Together with the spread of misinformation, the inflexibility of the DEASP expansion is likewise repeatedly raised.

One individual, via Fianna Fáil TD John Brassil, inquires as to how those with severe disabilities who are in full-time care can be expected to even sign an application form without a provision for a guardian to do so on their behalf, something Brassil describes as “a serious anomaly”.

In a lengthy typewritten letter in late August a pensioner inquired of Doherty as to why their state pension payment had been stopped despite their submitting an application form for a PSC by post: “I have been obliged to rely entirely on supplementary welfare benefit payments ever since.”

On a different note, an individual who claims to own a number of properties in negative equity and moves between them up to seven times a year in order to let as many of the buildings as possible wrote that “through this we have been able to meet all obligations to children, tax authorities, banks etc – I am proud of what we have managed”.

I got a letter from Social Welfare asking me to register for a PSC. It was one of the most emotionally upsetting letters I have received over the years.
Which address is home? And would they believe me? Or deem me a fraudster? Even though I have never sought a payment from them and hope not to until I am of pension age. I do not want to be interviewed about my situation. I just get on with it and it is none of anyone’s business. Do they think I have the time and money to attend an interview?

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Another sector of the citizenry also raise their objections – those who were adopted at birth: “There is an additonal requirement for adopted people to provide their adoption certificate in order to obtain their PSC,” writes a person to Doherty in September.

I want to know why adopted people need to be treated differently from others.

Convolution and defiance

Other complaints concern the convoluted nature of applying for both the PSC and anything else thereafter (one younger citizen bemoans having to wait two hours for their registration appointment to begin, only to then receive a card with their name misspelled). Another citizen relates how they were informed by DEASP that they didn’t need to be present when their children were registering for the PSC, only for their applications to be refused, indicating a disconnect among departmental staff as to what they can and cannot do with regards to the card.

Then there are letters of a more defiant nature. One individual wrote to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan in late August (then forwarded to DEASP) stating their being “appalled at the determination of the state to force us to use STATE IDENTITY CARDS”. “I will not register for such a card, I shall refuse and request an order against the State in the High Court.”

I am setting aside several hundred thousand euros for my battle in the courts and have engaged a solicitor. I would strongly advise you, as the sensible politician I consider you to be, to ask the government to think again.

Another message for Doherty in August is more succinct: “If you post one out to me I will cut it up and send it back to you.”

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“If after a lifetime of paying into the system I am refused what is rightfully due to me because I refuse to carry a card for which there is no requirement in law I will take the State to court.”

Road Safety Authority

All complaints to the RSA about the card are more focused in scope – they concern solely the expansion of the card as a requirement for people applying for a driver theory test (this was announced in June and is something which is intended to be further expanded for all licence applications from April 2018).

The complaints expressed are less in number (if one doesn’t count the 36 pages of redacted social media grievances the authority provided in response to our request), but are no less forceful.

This part of the expansion is the most problematic legally for the government – in that, whatever about social welfare services, expanding the PSC across departments appears to have no specific legislative basis to back it up, something seemingly acknowledged by the RSA in some of its responses, one of which reads: “As to the legal basis for requiring the PSC for the (theory test), DEASP has indicated that under its legislation the necessary legal provisions are in place.” Another states that the RSA is ‘mandated’ to adopt the card as required ID as part of “the delivery of the egovernment strategy”.

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‘Nothing to do with us, ask them,’ in other words.

In fact, almost every physical complaint received by the RSA involves the legal basis or otherwise for the card (as for the extensive complaints made about the card via social media – they all relate to the same subject):

“In this regard I wish to know why my government issued passport and full car licence are not acceptable and what legislation is being complied with?” asks one person.

“I would be grateful if you could clarify on what authority is the PSC the only form of identification acceptable to undergo driver theory tests?” inquires another.

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Another individual complains that after obtaining a driving licence they then received an invitation from DEASP to use it to obtain a PSC: “I do not recall giving anyone consent to you to pass on any details to anyone, including Social Protection.” (This particular issue is explained by the RSA as being a case of data-sharing between the Department of Transport and DEASP, with the authority having no input regarding same).

Finally, yet another citizen asks why a passport is needed to get a PSC, but can no longer be used to sit a driver theory test (“is it not absurd that a passport is required to get one of these cards?”). Still others say they do not wish to get a PSC as the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) has expressed concerns over the legal basis for its expansion (this occurred in late August – it subsequently emerged that the Commissioner Helen Dixon had expressed concerns as far back as August 2016 that the PSC would turn into ‘a form of national ID card’).

“I find the excessive focus on the PSC on the RSA’s website sinister,” they write.

In light of the recent controversy and the concerns about the data protection implications, I believe that the RSA should drop its drive to force people into getting one of these unnecessary cards.
I think the RSA should be ashamed of itself being party to the kind of tactics being used to compel people to get one of these cards.

Read: Revenue threatens to dock public servant’s pay over a property they’d never heard of

Read: ‘We were bad, what Ireland is doing is 10 times worse’ – International experts unimpressed with Public Services Card

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