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'Spark public debate': Spotlight on Public Services Card as data watchdog probe at 'advanced stage'

The long-awaited report on the legality of the PSC is expected in the near future.

download-46-5 File photo. Sample Public Services Card

THE PUBLIC SERVICES Card was first introduced back in 2011 – when 4,000 cards were issued in a pilot project. By 2019, over 3 million of them had been issued.

The government said the card would increase efficiency in delivering public services, and help to tackle social welfare fraud. Originally required for just social welfare payments, over the years this expanded to make it a requirement for services such as getting a driver’s licence or applying for an educational grant.

Controversy has dogged the card over the past few years, such as when Minister Regina Doherty said it was “mandatory but not compulsory”. There was also a u-turn on if you’d need it for your driving licence, as well as the case of a woman applying for a card asked for her partner’s name, date of birth and how long they’d been living together.

(You can read more on its numerous controversies here).

The Data Protection Commissioner has been investigating the legality of making the card a requirement for accessing government services, and it’s expected that its long-awaited report will be completed in the next few weeks.

However, it’s still not clear if it will published and released to the general public, with advocacy group the Irish Council for Civil Liberties saying “answers are overdue”.

So what do you need it for?

Currently, you need it if you’re claiming a social welfare payment.

A passport or driving licence won’t suffice if you’re heading to collect a payment at the post office. You must have a public services card to collect social welfare.

You also need it if you’re applying for a passport for the first time. 

“The measure is an important step considered necessary to enhance protections against fraud and identity theft and to uphold the integrity of the Irish passport,” according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

A public services card is needed to get a passport if your last passport was issued before 1 January 2005 and has been reported as lost, stolen or damaged. You’ll also need a PSC if your last passport expired more than five years ago.

For non-Irish nationals applying for naturalisation, they need to provide their public services card.

You also need one to access online services related to MyGovId. The MyGovId lets you access welfare services, driver’s licence renewal, student grants and Revenue services online, with one log in applying to all of these.

Anything else?

Well, as highlighted above, it had been planned to make it the only form of identification that could be used when booking a driver theory test. However, that was rolled back in May 2018.

The Road Safety Authority had come under intense pressure from civil servants to make the PSC mandatory for driving licences before Shane Ross pulled the plug. 

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According to a document from the Department of Social Protection from two years ago, there were more services for which it planned to make the PSC mandatory. 

What’s next?

The Data Protection Commissioner’s long-awaited report into the legality of the Public Services Card may not be far away, with its investigation expected to conclude soon.

During the week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Professor Philip Alston said that the government is taking decisions “which will have huge potential consequences for governance in the future without any transparency or public debate”.

“It is essential the DPC inquiry addresses the fundamental human rights issues at stake here,” Professor Alston said.

Further, it is essential that it be published in full in order to spark the public debate which has been notably lacking up until now.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie in June, head of communications at the office of the Data Protection Commissioner Graham Doyle said that its investigation remains ongoing but is currently at an “advanced stage”.

Alston and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) have raised concerns that biometric data may be stored on the card, with government bodies able to access information on each of the people with a card. 

The ICCL’s information rights project manager Elizabeth Farries said: “The risks are too high for so-called state administrative convenience.

Further, those who aren’t dependent on the state for support do not have to submit to such a serious invasion of their privacy by government. So not only is the PSC probably illegal under EU law, it is also highly discriminatory.

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Sean Murray

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