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Department boss says he's 'satisfied' the Public Services Card rollout is value for money

The Secretary General of the Department of Social Protection is due before the PAC today.

CLARITY OVER THE legality of the Public Services Card (PSC) may be sought in the Circuit Court, according to the Secretary General of the Department of Social Protection. 

The department’s boss, John McKeon, will tell the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee today that it has yet to receive an enforcement notice from the Data Protection Commission.

In August, the Data Protection Commissioner said that its report into the legality of the card had found no lawful basis for the mandatory use of the PSC aside from welfare payments, and also found the State was unlawfully retaining the information of millions of people who applied for the card.

The government has said it doesn’t accept the findings of the DPC and won’t be implementing any of its findings.

In light of that, the DPC will have to initiate enforcement action to try to compel the government to comply, which may end up in a court battle.

In his opening statement to the committee, the secretary general states that “a difference of opinion between the Department and the Data Protection Commission” remains.

He says the department and the DPC are both “anxious” that matters are “clarified and resolved as soon as possible in accordance with the process set down by the Oireachtas”.

Enforcement notice

“We therefore await receipt of an Enforcement Notice, and subject to what it might say, may seek the necessary clarity in the circuit court. We hope that this process can be completed expeditiously,” McKeon states.

In terms of value for money, the secretary general defends the PSC, stating that he is satisfied that the PSC “has created the basis for improved service delivery, reduced administrative costs and has also enhanced control savings”. 

Previously committee members questioned why there is no business case document for rolling out the card. 

“The committee is already aware from its review of this matter in 2016 that there is no single business case document. While as I have indicated in my letter of last week, this is regrettable it should not be taken as evidence that the project was not planned or executed properly,” he states.

Appearing before the PAC in September alongside the Data Protection Commissioner, Comptroller and Auditor General, Seamus McCarthy, said that the fact the PSC had no business case “just makes it much more difficult to manage a project in a value-for-money way”.

However, McKeon will today tell the committee that having reviewed the costs and benefits associated with the project, he is “satisfied” that PSC has been worthwhile. 

The cost 

He confirms in his opening statement that the total fully allocated costs of the project to date are €67.7 million. However, he states that a large proportion of these costs would have been incurred even if the PSC process was never introduced.

“This is because the department always sought to authenticate the identity of people claiming its services and issued identity tokens in the form of pension books, social services cards and free travel passes.

“The SAFE process formalised this approach, established a consistent approach across all of our offices and introduced a higher more secure standard of identity token in the form of a PSC, incorporating a photograph of the person,” says McKeon.

“If a conservative allowance is made, as it properly should be, for the counterfactual, or already existing costs, then the actual additional costs of the SAFE/PSC process, over the past nine years are, at most, approximately €37 million,” says the secretary general, adding that “set against these costs are the benefits of the improved process”. 

The improvements include administrative efficiencies within the department, reduced payment leakage due to error or fraud, the deterrence and prevention of fraud and  improved customer service, he states. 

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