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'I won't lower myself': Angry clashes at committee as Doherty defends government stance on PSC

There were testy exchanges between the minister and committee members in the Oireachtas this morning.

Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty.
Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty.
Image: Oireachtas

THE GOVERNMENT IS willing to go “as far as it takes” to vindicate its position on the Public Services Card, Minister Regina Doherty said today. 

At a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Minister Doherty clashed with TDs and Senators over the Data Protection Commissioner’s landmark report into the Public Services Card.

She denied that it was ever the case that the PSC was envisioned as a national identity card.

She also denied that people would be “forced down a tunnel” to get a PSC as the only means to access public services. Some TDs and Senators argued to Doherty that this simply wasn’t the case when it came to the likes of first-time passports and for the time being on the newly-launched National Childcare Scheme, and this prompted angry exchanges at the committee this morning.

PSC

The Public Services Card (PSC) was originally introduced for accessing welfare payments, but the government had begun to roll out its requirement for other non-welfare services, including for driver licences and passport applications.

In August this year, the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) ruled the use for any department other than welfare which required the PSC for services would be illegal. It also ruled that the department’s retention of data relating to people’s application for their PSC was unlawful.

The government has signalled that it doesn’t agree with the DPC’s findings and won’t be complying with them.

While the DPC’s investigation was ongoing and public concerns had been raised about the card, government ploughed ahead with plans at making a PSC mandatory for other public services such as passports and driving licences. As recently as the summer, civil servants were told to look at the possibility of the PSC replacing the medical card.

Despite this unwillingness to back down, other services that the PSC was made mandatory have backed down already. The requirement for a mandatory for PSC for first-time passport holders has been dropped, as has the requirement for those seeking to become naturalised citizens. 

An area where the government hasn’t backed down is on the newly-launched National Childcare Scheme. Until January, the only way parents can apply for the scheme is by having a PSC.

Government defence

In her opening statement, Minister Doherty said that the “genesis” of the PSC had come in the 1990s and its “purpose has always been clear” in terms of creating a more “integrated” approach to the delivery of State services.

Doherty highlighted initial efforts from Fianna Fáil governments in power prior to Fine Gael who put in place legislation to underpin the PSC.

Over 3 million people in Ireland have been issued with a card since its initial rollout in 2011.

The minister claimed that the public is very satisfied with the PSC, based on research commissioned by her department, and that she and her department had considered the DPC’s damning report on the PSC “carefully”.

“Following this consideration, it was concluded that the processing of personal data related to the PSC does, in fact, comply with legal requirements, that document retention is lawful and that the information provided does satisfy the transparency requirements,” she said.

The DPC has advised my Department that an enforcement notice is being prepared which will be issued to the Department in respect of this investigation… This may include a referral to the Courts.

That enforcement notice from the DPC has yet to be issued.

Testy exchanges

Committee members, among them Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea and Sinn Féin’s John Brady, queried the Attorney General’s legal advice that there was a strong legal basis underpinning the card.

Doherty said: “This is a simple case of two people interpreting legislation in a different way. I’m doing my job and the Data Protection Commissioner is doing hers.

The Attorney General’s advice is as robust as it could have been.

Minister Shane Ross pulled the requirement for making a PSC mandatory for a driving test, but Doherty said that was a question for Ross.

She said that such is their legal advice that to deviate from what they’re doing from the PSC now would in fact be illegal.

Doherty also said at several junctures that there were alternative means whereby people could apply and use government services without a PSC. 

“There’s an artificiality about the whole process,” Fianna Fáil’s O’Dea said. “Some of her answers were disingenuous to say the least.”

He then raised a query about anyone making school transport appeals needing a PSC. “That was certainly the direction in which it was going,” he said.

Doherty asked O’Dea to request a “proper briefing” from whoever was giving him information because that wasn’t the case.

“Again, with respect, stating anecdotally that things were definitively the way things were going with no basis of fact does actually more disservice of you and is more disingenuous of you,” she said.

In fact, school transport appeals were under the government’s plans for future requirements for the PSC. According to this document dating back a number of years which is still available on the department’s website, it was part of the government’s PSC plans.

O’Dea added that the government refusing to accept the DPC’s report is undermining that office, and he accused Doherty of being “condescending” when addressing the issue.

The minister said it was O’Dea’s Fianna Fáil’s government that brought forth the “vast majority” of legislation which underpins the PSC. O’Dea said the legislation underpinning the PSC is unlawful but Doherty said he was wrong.

“I won’t lower myself to be as rude to you as you’ve just been to me,” she said. 

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Sean Murray

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