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'The deeper I go, the more concern I have' - Department of Transport worried over 'exposure' due to mandatory PSC

New documents show the department was concerned with the fallout from Shane Ross bringing a stop to efforts to make a PSC mandatory when applying for a driver’s licence.

PSC The Public Services Card

THE FALLOUT FROM the Department of Transport’s dropping of the Public Services Card (PSC) as a mandatory requirement for driving licences saw acrimony and infighting breaking out between the various government departments and bodies involved, new documents reveal.

Indeed, Transport officials appeared to be greatly concerned with the entire project, and with the exposure pulling the plug on it would give the department in general.

The Road Safety Authority (RSA) was the body charged with implementing an expansion of the PSC as a mandatory requirement for two of the highest-profile government transport services – the provision of driving licences and driver theory tests.

That mandatory requirement has since been dropped for driving licences (and will eventually be dropped for the theory test also) after Transport Minister Shane Ross pulled the plug on the project upon receiving advice from the office of the Attorney General concerning the overall legality of the PSC expansion.

New documents released to TheJournal.ie under Freedom of Information show that things were no less fraught during this process on the Department of Transport’s side than they were for its subsidiary body the RSA.

All the while the RSA was ploughing ahead with a campaign to notify the public of the coming need to obtain a PSC if you wished to get a licence, high-level discussions were taking place in Transport as to whether the move could ever actually happen.

‘Draw attention’

The Department of Social Protection (DEASP) got wind of the indecision in Transport in mid-March, in the immediate aftermath of RSA chief executive Moyagh Murdock being informed that Ross was to put an end to the project. DEASP is the department primarily responsible for the PSC, having introduced it as a mandatory requirement for all welfare services from August 2017.

ROAD SAFETY 808_90519684 RSA chief executive Moyagh Murdock Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Secretary general at DEASP John McKeon wrote to his opposite number in Transport Graham Doyle on 14 March to state that the PSC project “has been subject to significant public comment and debate”, and to express worries that the reversal of the decision to use the PSC for licences by one of the “most high profile potential users” of the card would “inevitably draw attention”.

“This might lead to a renewal of the speculation, albeit unfounded, that there are ‘problems’ with the verification of identity to SAFE2 (Standard Authentication Framework Environment – the government’s self-appointed digital identification standard) standard and the use of the PSC,” he wrote.

McKeon equated the levels of ownership of a PSC (“over three million registrations to date”) with the “general… high level of public acceptance of the… PSC”.

To this point we have held firm, in the public interest, against calls from some quarters that we should abandon or delay the project and will continue to do so.

The legal basis, or lack thereof, for the PSC’s expansion to other state services has been the subject of constant criticism from privacy and data protection professionals since its announcement in May 2017, not least due to the then pending enactment of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force late last month.

In considering McKeon’s message, a Transport principal officer, who stressed he had not been working on the project for long, expressed fundamental concerns regarding the whole project:

12 Source: Department of Transport

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The deeper I look into this whole matter the more concerned I get and the greater the number of fundamental questions that arise.

Doyle’s eventual response to his opposite number stated that making the PSC mandatory would mean having to amend the Road Traffic Act (taken at face value, this is the first indication of any sort as to what the legal problems Transport was wrestling with were).

He instead suggested that the PSC would be merely one of the forms of ID acceptable to apply for a licence, in order to avoid the need to adapt new legislation.

He also reiterated that the PSC-led online renewal option for driving licences would be effective “from the end of next month (April)”.

This has yet to transpire.

2 Banner on National Driver Licence Service (NDLS) website at present encouraging people to use a PSC as ID when applying for a licence. To do so is no longer a mandatory requirement Source: NDLS

Shifting policy

The released documents give an insight into how a multi-month project (which Murdock claimed the RSA had already ploughed €2 million into) could be run on an all-systems-go basis while at the same time the authority’s parent department was wavering as to whether it should be allowed continue to completion at all.

Throughout the correspondence it becomes clear that a shifting in Transport’s policy towards the card was in the works from early 2018 on.

Ross’s own reservations regarding the process are outlined in internal Transport correspondence dated 8 March, the day before he pulled the plug on the mandatory-nature of the project (the Minister himself had received plenty of correspondence from the public decrying the project – with one person suggesting the PSC “could easily have been transferred from the fascist texts from the 1930s”).

14 Source: Department of Transport

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Worries expressed by RSA chairperson Liz O’Donnell as to DEASP’s ability to satisfy demand for licences, a state service that often needs to be actioned in a hurry (due to a stated job requirement for example), would merely serve to deepen Ross’s scepticism, another official wrote.

“The minister is having significant doubts about this so this is likely to add to them,” they said.

However other aspects are also developing… DEASP have stood down their information campaign on the card, notwithstanding RSA’s intent to expand its use, leaving them and us somewhat exposed.

13 Source: Department of Transport

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It seems, from the documentation released, that the minister’s meeting with the office of the Attorney General may have been the final straw with regard to his own patience concerning the plan to make the PSC mandatory (Transport previously refused to release the Attorney General’s advice to Ross to TheJournal.ie – however, the released correspondence does outline queries raised at that meeting, including: “is there a statutory basis for MyGovID [the online counterpart identity to the physical PSC]?”).

A draft letter to be sent from Ross to his fellow ministers Regina Doherty (Social Protection) and Paschal Donohoe (Public Expenditure – the department responsible for the PSC’s expansion), composed on 15 March, states: “I would have considerable concerns about making it mandatory to use a PSC only for driving licence/learner permit applications and the proposed on-line application process, especially considering the concerns of the Attorney General’s office at this time.”

Where’s the legislation?

From there, the focus within Transport seems to have been on figuring out whether or not the PSC expansion was in fact legal, and also on suggesting that it had never been Transport’s intention to make the card mandatory for its services anyway, thus placing the blame for the turnaround firmly on the RSA’s shoulders.

“Can we please get out the legislation dealing with the PSC and the Theory Test for examination and discussion on Monday?” the same principal officer who was relatively new to the project wrote to colleagues on 9 March.

15 Source: Department of Transport

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Much of the work subsequently carried out appears to have seen Transport officials searching in vain for legislation which might have been passed in order to give effect to the government decision of September 2013, upon which the whole PSC expansion was based (government decisions are merely a statement of intent on behalf of an administration – they have no legislative basis).

“We have been unable to locate the Act that delivered on the commitment,” the principal officer wrote to a colleague in Public Expenditure. “Perhaps you might… confirm whether or not such legislation was in fact made.”

To the best of TheJournal.ie‘s knowledge, no such legislation was ever passed.

“I am currently trying to establish how the requirement on the RSA escalated from ‘integration of the PSC infrastructure with the new RSA driver licence registration process’ to one of making it mandatory that only a PSC would be accepted as a form of identity when applying for a driving licence,” the same official (again) wrote to Murdock on 14 March, with the clear inference being that the fault was with the RSA for getting the wrong end of the stick and making the PSC mandatory when there had never been any such expectation.

0145 Independence Alliance_90526146 Minister for Transport Shane Ross Source: RollingNews.ie

Secretary general at Transport Graham Doyle wrote, again to the principal officer, on 12 April and described a conversation he had with Murdock the previous evening.

“I noted that the minister’s position is consistent with government policy,” he said. “I was clear that I did not request that the RSA make it mandatory for a PSC to be needed for all driver licence applications.

She accepted this but said that their interpretation of what was required, and their interactions with other parts of government, resulted in them taking that approach initially.

That mail was sent nearly two months after the RSA first made it officially known to the public that the PSC would become a mandatory requirement for licence applications.

Murdock’s stance on 12 April was somewhat less strident than the tone of a letter she sent to Doyle nine days earlier: “The direction taken to date by the RSA was on foot of your previous correspondence, which appeared to be in accordance with government policy on the use of the PSC,” she said.

6 Sample Irish driving licence

It should be noted that the idea of a mandatory PSC had already been in place since June 2017 for the driver theory test – the first state service to be incorporated into the expansion.

The RSA has now confirmed that the mandatory requirement will be removed for the theory test also in due course.

Why it took nine months for legal issues surrounding the mandatory clause to raise their heads is not immediately clear.

Likewise, how a state body managed to, allegedly, wholly misinterpret the intentions of its parent body and introduce a mandatory requirement that had never been requested is one of the fundamental mysteries of the entire PSC project.

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