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the third degree

'If everything's fine, why's it being investigated?' - Social Protection peppered with tough questions over PSC

It emerged at today’s Oireachtas committee on social protection that roughly 450 people have had welfare payments suspended over failing to register for a Public Services Card.

psc The Public Services Card

ONE OF THE top officials in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) faced a barrage of questions regarding the Public Services Card (PSC) at an Oireachtas committee this afternoon.

Tim Duggan, assistant secretary of the department’s Client Identity Services section, was giving evidence before the committee concerning his own department.

This followed a previous appearance made by representatives of Ireland’s data protection professions two weeks ago, in which serious concerns regarding the card were raised.

In his opening submission, Duggan said that much of the negative commentary concerning the PSC has been ‘misleading’ and ‘incorrect’ and repeatedly drew attention to the media reportage that has been directed at the project.

“There has been too much emphasis on the card,” he said. Repeating a mantra he would return to repeatedly during his appearance, Duggan said the card is “about making sure we’re dealing with the right people”.

2 Tim Duggan

The whole point is to identify someone, not on the balance of probabilities, but to a substantial level of assurance that they are who they say they are.
All the card is is proof that you’ve been through the SAFE process.

SAFE2, or Standard Authentication Framework Environment, is the government’s own in-house identification standard used to process PSC applications.

Legal basis

Regarding the legal basis for the card and its expansion to services other than its initial welfare remit (the latest of which is its requirement when applying for a driving licence or renewal), something repeatedly called into question, Duggan said the department is “fully satisfied that with these provisions there is a robust legal basis for the approach we have taken to identity verification”.

The legality or otherwise of the PSC project has been one of its most consistent criticisms, grouped with the suggestion that it is an attempt to create a national ID card ‘by stealth’.

Duggan said that his department is “acutely aware of GDPR (the EU’s coming General Data Protection Regulation, which goes live on 25 May)” and has a dedicated team “to ensure compliance” with it.

He did not have to answer any questions regarding the fact that the government’s current Data Protection Bill exempts the state from much of the fines/requirements of GDPR, however.

He said that the idea that the public services data contained on the PSC could end up in the hands of private sector concerns is preposterous. “I’d like to make it really clear that nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Duggan also made reference to the Data Protection Commissioner’s (DPC) investigation into the card, which was initiated late last year over concerns regarding the project’s transparency and its compliance or otherwise with the existing data protection legislation.

“The commissioner has now provided a plan to DEASP regarding that audit,” he said.

This is not the first time that the DPC has conducted such an audit. The department looks forward to her preliminary conclusions and looks forward to discussing them with her.

Questions and answers

The various members of the committee were not shy in asking Duggan (who actually appeared with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform’s Barry Lowry, but ended up dominating the session to a large extent) questions about the card, both on foot of the previous committee outing two weeks ago and with regard to media coverage of the data protection issues surrounding it.

Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea wanted to know more about the DPC investigation into the card currently ongoing.

“What exactly is she investigating?” he asked.

If everything is as clear and above board as you say why is that investigation happening?

AMH Senator Alice Mary Higgins

Sinn Féin’s John Brady said that as far as he is concerned the PSC is an attempt “to introduce a national ID card by stealth” and said he doesn’t believe that the “legal basis is in place”.

He wanted to know how many people have had welfare payments suspended because of a refusal to register for a card, citing the example of a woman in Donegal who had her state pension stopped for 18 months for that reason, and asked how much the card has cost to date.

Brady likewise wanted clarity as to why adopted people, 40% of whom in Ireland don’t realise their own status, are expected to bring an adoption cert with them to a PSC registration appointment, a fact that has been described as “discriminatory”.

Independent Senator Alice Mary Higgins wanted to discuss the fact that the new Data Protection Bill offers “huge exemptions from GDPR to ministers”. “If ministers disregard advice regarding our data infrastructures, well then we have to be very concerned about GDPR,” she said.

We’ve seen mandatory and compulsory, do we need another line now between voluntary and required.

The only non-adversarial statement by a committee member was by Fine Gael’s Joe Carey, TD for Clare, who declared his belief that the PSC “is a good initiative”.

“I have one myself,” he said. “I don’t believe the hysteria that has been going on about this particular issue. Have you received many complaints about them? (the answer to this question would appear to be yes)”

Not related

Regarding the investigation of the Data Protection Commissioner, Duggan noted that the resultant report has been “pushed back”. “The DPC is hoping to conclude the initial phase next month, and the second phase in May or June,” he said, adding that the delay “is due to normal pressure-of-business reasons”.

He clarified that, to date, 3.14 million PSCs have been issued to 2.65 million people (the disparity being attributable to reissues to those who turned 18 or 66 for the most part).

The total cost of the project to date is €59.7 million, he said.

He added that it is “very difficult to answer” how many people have had benefits suspended due to a refusal to register for a PSC as “it is a very fluid situation”. He said that about 4,000 free travel passes have been revoked due to a failure to register, but that “most of those people have never engaged with the department”.

Roughly 450 other cases have seen the suspension of a payment, he said, adding that in the department’s opinion “we think they’ve gone abroad”.

Duggan refused to acknowledge the possibility that the DPC’s investigation might have resulted from her requesting of his own department that it produce a guide to the card in order to answer the common questions regarding it. That investigation was announced at the end of October 2017, roughly one month after the production of the department’s Comprehensive Guide to SAFE Registration and the Public Services Card, itself a response to the DPC’s initial request.

“We haven’t heard that she had any issues with that guide,” he said. “But she initiated an investigation into the card after it was produced,” replied Higgins.

“But it doesn’t necessarily follow that’s the reason why,” Duggan replied in turn.

She hasn’t said if she has any difficulties with the guide we produced.

An ID card?

Regarding the idea that the PSC is a national ID card, he denied this.

“A national ID card is an entirely different idea,” he said. “People are generally compelled to carry (such a card).”

We don’t require people to get a card, we require them to satisfy the minister as to their identity.

On the adoption issue, Duggan said that “there are a lot of things that are required to be satisfied to fulfil SAFE2″.

A mother’s birth name is one of these. The same thing is required if you’re getting a passport (anecdotal evidence would suggest this is not the case – many Irish adopted people living without an adoption cert do have a passport).

Two other statements by the DEASP official may come in for scrutiny – he suggested that “it is not mandatory for a social welfare customer to present a PSC at their post office”, and also said, somewhat definitively, that “it is impossible to get a PSC without registering for one”, after Higgins had asked him about a situation which reportedly saw citizens being posted a card without applying for one.

“We would prefer if that was how a payment was processed,” he said regarding the former. “But when a body says you need a card for this, what they mean is that your ID needs to be verified to a substantial level of assurance”.

The latter, meanwhile, appears to contradict DEASP’s own annual report from 2012, which stated that 64,000 ‘low risk’ customers were issued with PSCs that year as a successor to their own free travel card via a ‘reduced registration process’.

Read: You’re going to need a PSC to get any kind of driving licence or learner permit from April

Read: ‘We are trying to sound the alarm’ – committee hears Public Services Card is a legal ticking time bomb

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