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Pulling mandatory PSC for passports had 'whole of government repercussions', civil servants warned

New documents have shown how the Passport Office considered its options before pulling the PSC as a mandatory requirement.

PRIOR TO REVERSING the mandatory requirement to have a Public Services Card if you were an adult applying for your first passport, civil servants were warned that pulling the measure would have “whole of government repercussions”. 

It was around a month after the Data Protection Commissioner’s damning report into the legality of the Public Services Card was published, that the Passport Office decided to drop it as a requirement in September. That report had found there was no legal basis to make it mandatory to access anything other than social welfare.

Documents obtained by TheJournal.ie and its investigative platform Noteworthy under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Passport Office sought to urgently reassess the situation after the report’s findings were made public.

The options that were put on the table to address the finding that requiring a PSC to get a passport had no legal basis came with the potential for “negative public commentary” and a “high reputational risk”, according to the head of passport services. 

The documents also show that, as soon as the Data Protection Commissioner’s damning report came out, the passport service immediately decided not to reject applications from first-time applicants who didn’t supply a Public Services Card. 

‘No legal basis’

From 2017 onwards, any first-time adult applicants for an Irish passport were required to have a PSC to proceed with their applications. 

A PSC was also needed to get a passport if your last passport was issued before 1 January 2005 and had been reported as lost, stolen or damaged.

You also needed a PSC if your last passport expired more than five years ago.

However, an investigation by the Data Protection Commissioner into the legality of the card published in August found that there was no legal basis for the PSC to be a mandatory requirement for anything other than welfare payments. 

This meant there was no legal basis for you to provide a PSC if you’re applying for a passport for the first time. 

The government has so far said it rejects the findings from the commissioner and will fight them in court if necessary.

It has sought to expand the number of government services you need a PSC for in recent years, including for driving licence applications, and for use as an age card. Earlier this year civil servants within government departments were even told to look at making the PSC a potential replacement for the Medical Card. 

In September, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that the PSC will no longer be required for first-time passport applicants

A spokesperson said Tánaiste Simon Coveney had directed that a “review” of the documents required be undertaken with specific reference to the PSC, and this review had resulted in it no longer being a requirement. 

Previous documents have revealed a reticence from Foreign Affairs to make having a PSC a requirement for applying for all passports. It had determined it would “impact negatively” on the uptake of the passport service, “seriously undermine” its online renewal service and lead to longer waiting times. 

Options on the table

After the Data Protection Commissioner’s ruling that making a PSC mandatory for anything other than welfare had no legal basis, the Department of Foreign Affairs urgently sought clarity on what its stance would be given the card was mandatory for first-time adult applicants. 

On the day the Data Protection Commissioner’s findings were published, Foreign Affairs drafted a response it would give to staff dealing with customers where it said it would be “reviewing” its requirement to have a PSC.

A note from the director of passport services said: “Staff currently processing first time applications where a PSC has not been provided have been advised not to reject these applications but rather to pass these applications to their higher executive officer for further review.”

In an email later that week, the director of passport services confirmed that the average number of passport applications from adults applying for the first time is 70,000 a year.

This means that 70,000 people – who may not have needed a PSC for anything else – would have needed to get one to get a passport.

On 27 August, a further update was provided by the director of passport services.

She said that legal advice given to the Passport Office in August 2018 by the Attorney General said its mandatory requirement for a PSC for first-time applicants had a “valid legal basis” and was “reasonable and proportionate”. 

The director said further legal advice had been sought in the wake of the Data Protection Commissioner’s report on the validity of the “interim measures” it was proposing to deal with the situation. 

Each of these interim measures that were considered carried risks with them, according to the head of passport services.

One of those measures would be to not issue any passports to first-time applicants without a PSC.

“Taking this option carries a high reputational risk as it would mean that a number of people (could be as high as 120) would be unable to travel,” the director said. “This could lead to legal action and/or negative public commentary.”

Another option would be for the passport office to replicate the process to obtain a PSC, meaning applicants would have been required to attend a face-to-face interview in Dublin or Cork.

This could also “lead to negative public commentary”, while it would pose “logistical challenges” and could only be a “short term measure”. 

The third potential solution was to ask for additional photo identification and proof of address to verify someone’s identity before issuing them with a one-year passport allowing the applicant to travel.

“The issuing of a time-limited passport is not an option usually taken by the passport service and would have to [be] clearly communicated to applicants that this was being done as an interim measure to facilitate travel pending a whole of government decision on the PSC requirement,” the director of passport services said.

The last option was for passports to be issued without a PSC to all first-time applicants provided they were able to show other photo ID and proof of address.

The director of passport services said:

This could have whole of government repercussions as this proposes issuing full passports to first time applicants without PSC.

Solution

It wasn’t until 18 September, then, that the Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the Passport Office no longer required first-time applicants to have a PSC to get a passport.

In the event, the last option listed above – which would have “whole of government repercussions” – was close to the solution arrived at.

In lieu of having a PSC, you can now provide a driver’s licence or a passport from another country as your photo ID. 

The department’s statement announcing the change said that Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney had directed a review of the process of needing a PSC for passports in the wake of the Data Protection Commissioner’s report. 

“Following this review the Passport Service will continue to accept a copy of an applicant’s PSC as valid identification for first time adult applications and other applicable categories of application,” it said.

Enforcement action from the Data Protection Commissioner to compel the government to comply with its findings have yet to be undertaken, although the government has indicated it will fight the matter in court if necessary.

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Sean Murray

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