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Hospitals, schools, jobs? Why the government's 'end goal' is for every adult to have a Public Services Card

Stories of people denied services for not having the Public Services Card have made the news. Here’s what you need to know about it.

Minister Paschal Donohoe trumpeting the Public Services Card last year
Minister Paschal Donohoe trumpeting the Public Services Card last year
Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

YOU MAY HAVE been hearing a lot recently about the Public Services Card.

Some residents have had them for years but, if the government has its way, people will need this identity card for everything from doing a driving test to applying for a passport in the near future.

The ID card has been under the spotlight recently after a number of stories of people losing out on public services because they do not have one came to light.

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said on Friday that it’s not compulsory – but mandatory for her department – while Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that the “whole point” in having one is so that there is a “single point of information so that people can access public services”.

The Green Party last week accused the government of “bringing in mandatory identity cards for Irish citizens”, while Fianna Fáil has called for a debate on the issue to take place in both the Dáil and the Seanad.

So what is this card? What would you need it for? And how did it come about? Here’s a few things to get you up to speed:

First thing’s first: What do you need it for?

Last week, cases highlighted in TheJournal.ie and the Irish Times included a parent whose son has Down Syndrome and felt like he was being put under pressure to get a card and a pensioner in her 70s who is owed about €13,000 because she refused to register for the card.

So, what do you need it for?

In a press statement sent late last Friday, the Department of Social Protection said: “The PSC is currently a requirement for the following:

  • Access to Social Welfare Services (including Child Benefit and Treatment Benefits)
  • First time adult passport applicants in the state
  • Replacement of lost, stolen or damaged passports issued prior to January 2005, where the person is resident in the State.
  • Citizenship applications
  • Driver Theory Test Applicants
  • Access to high value or personal online public services, e.g. Social Welfare and Revenue services, via MyGovId, the mechanism for accessing public services online.

Since 2011, social welfare recipients began to be issued with these cards, and over 2 million people in the State have one, the government said.

The Department of Social Protection has been keen to stress that, despite the PSC being required to prove your identity in an increasing number of instances, “it does not have any of the typical characteristics of a national identity card”.

It argues: “You are not required by law to register for a Public Services Card… You are not required by law to provide it to a member of the police force at their request… Bodies not specified in the legislation may not request the PSC or may not be required to use it in any transactions.”

However, the list of bodies that could request the card is vast, varying from healthcare to education, and a range of government services.

But you could need one for a whole host of things?

Going by the legislation cited by the Department of Social Protection itself, there are a whole host of ways that you could need the card in future.

From what we already know, there are currently plans from the government to expand the requirement for the PSC.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie on Friday, Road Safety Authority chief Moyagh Murdock said it was now government policy that the organisation use it.

Currently, it is required for anyone applying for the driver theory test, but this is expected to be extended to the full driving licence.

Asked on Morning Ireland earlier this week if the card would be needed when applying for passports, Minister Simon Coveney said:

That’s not the case today but we hope to move to that in future.
The whole point in having a public services card is that there is a single point of information so that people can access public services whether that’s a driver’s licence [or] whether it’s a passport.

It would take “some time” for the Passport Office bring in that requirement, he said, adding that he expects it to be introduced in around 12 months.

We also have a timeline for what you will need PSC for in future, provided by the government.

By April next year for example, you will need a PSC and be registered for its online counterpart MyGovID to apply for a student grant or to check if you’re eligible for dental or optical treatment benefits.

And that’s what is known so far.

As the legislation outlines, there are numerous organisations within the State that could require you to present a PSC.

In theory, you could be required in future to show one at a job interview for the civil service, because the legislation includes the Public Appointments Service as a “specified body”.

The National Cancer Registry, or the National Breast Screening Board, could request a PSC for similar reasons.

There is nothing to suggest that they will be required yet, if at all, in these instances but there are nevertheless provisions in the legislation to allow for it.

On solid ground?

Critics claim that the PSC is simply a national identity card, and that the government has introduced it without consulting anyone.

In a statement this week, Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire expressed concerns about the legal basis of the card, itself.

Commenting on the case of a woman denied a pension that was highlighted by the Irish Times, he said: “There are very considerable and legitimate concerns regarding privacy, and sharing of sensitive data, and several privacy law experts have expressed their concerns to the Minister for Justice in recent days.

It is simply not acceptable to attempt to introduce such a far-reaching policy by stealth. Making such a card mandatory by merely administrative means is not legally sound or acceptable.

Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall wants a public debate on the matter.

She said: “What we are seeing is the creeping introduction of a mandatory ID card scheme by the back door. This type of public administration by stealth lacks transparency, threatens people’s rights, and is just not acceptable.

There has been absolutely no public debate or scrutiny on this issue which fundamentally affects the privacy of every citizen in the State.

Fianna Fáil’s Senator Catherine Ardagh said that the matter urgently needs to be debated in the Oireachtas.

She said: “Any measure or initiative designed to effectively establish a State database of citizens’ information requires a comprehensive debate, and the fact that a Public Services Card will soon be required for all passport applications, driving licences and driver theory tests means that this debate needs to happen once the Oireachtas returns.”

How did it come about?

From the beginning, the Public Services Card has been tied up with issues around social welfare recipients verifying their identity to receive their payment.

The legal basis for the card goes back to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, which first included details of a Public Services Card, which was introduced by the Fianna Fáil-led government.

Successive governments dragged their heels on the issue, but the cards finally began to be distributed under the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Leo Varadkar said in the Dáil in 2011 that it would be “very important in cracking down on social welfare fraud”.

Unlike in the UK, where Tony Blair tried and failed to introduce a national identity card for use across a variety of services in the face of heavy opposition, the Public Services Card in Ireland came into common use with relatively little political opposition.

The Social Welfare and Pensions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2013 also adds on provisions that are now cited by the Department of Social Protection as justification for the card.

That act grants the Minister for Social Protection “may require any person receiving a benefit to satisfy the Minister as to his or her identity”.

Furthermore, if identity cannot be verified “the person shall be disqualified from receiving a benefit”. That piece of legislation outlines the “manner in which the Minister may be so satisfied”, laying the groundwork for what would become the Public Services Card.

For all intents and purposes, the government has so decided that the manner in which it wants this verification is the Public Services Card.

The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, meanwhile, also sets out what other bodies could ask for this card, opening up a whole range of possibilities for the card to be required in other areas.

It states: “A person shall produce his or her Public Services Card at the request of a specified body for the purposes of a transaction.”

Let’s break that down.

The legislation defines a transaction as a “an application, a claim, a communication, a payment or a supply of a service”. Clearly, that could mean a range of things.

As for what constitutes a “specified body”, that is a very long list.

psc specified bodies 1

psc specified bodies 2

psc specified bodies 3

Here a few takeaways from the list: An Garda Síochana and the Defence Forces can only ask for a Public Services Card in “respect of their own members”.

A garda wouldn’t be able to stop you on the street and ask to see your PSC, for example.

It would seem that the legislation would allow for a range of bodies, from the Revenue Commissioners to the Legal Aid Board, to hospitals, and schools to ask for a PSC in the event of any such “transaction”.

Again the definition of transaction in this sense could mean an application, a supply of service or even a communication with such a body.

While the government has been encouraging people to sign up for these cards for quite some time, it is clear there is an element distinctly separate from social welfare, or free travel, contained within it.

In a statement in 2015, the Department of Social Protection said: “The Public Services Card has been introduced to enable people gain access to public services more efficiently and with a minimum of duplication of effort, while at the same time preserving their privacy to the maximum extent possible.”

The use of the term Public Services Card begins to slip into government press releases quite often in 2016, across a range of departments.

Last year, then-Minister in that department, Leo Varadkar, heralded the new range of paternity benefits on offer.

For people wishing to avail of this, the statement issued said that people would need to get a PSC to qualify.

Separately, and also in 2016, the Department of Foreign Affairs changed the rules on passports so that first-time applicants will be required to hold a PSC “for identification purposes”.

Around this time last year, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe held a press conference for the specific purpose of pushing the PSC.

The department’s statement said: “Initially, this focused on social welfare payments such as Child and Jobseekers’ Benefit, as well as the Free Travel Pass and State pensions. However, over time, it is being rolled out to other public services and will become the means by which access to public services will be verified and delivered in Ireland.”

It says that the “end goal” is to have a PSC issued to every adult in the State.

Donohoe said: “The Public Services Card acts as a key to more efficient and better-run public services. It enables the State to provide new and enhanced services to the public while also achieving efficiencies in administration and helping to eliminate fraud.”

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie, the Department of Social Protection said it had recruited 218 additional staff “on a phased basis” to deal with the task of processing PSCs.

It added that it currently had no plans to recruit more staff for this process in the future.

One thing is for sure, if the government continues to plough ahead with its plans for the Public Services Card, it’s going to be difficult to access many important services without one in Ireland in the near future.

Read: Pretty soon you’re going to need this card to do a whole load of important things in Ireland – but why?

Read: You’ll soon need a public services card to renew your passport

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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