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Timeline: The Public Services Card saga

Last week the Data Protection Commissioner said it will not publish its report in full, following an investigation into the rollout of the cards – which experts claim breaches data protection laws.

Laoise Neylon Freelance Journalist

WRITING IN TheJournal.ietoday, solicitor and Director of Data Compliance Europe Simon McGarr says that the Public Services Card could well become the most expensive administrative error in the history of this State. Here, we look back at the chequered history of the plastic project. 

2011: The Public Services Card was introduced as a pilot project for social welfare recipients in Tullamore, Sligo and the Kings Inn area of Dublin.

2012: The process of rolling out the cards to all social welfare recipients across the nation, including those claiming child benefit, began.

The government said the card would increase efficiency in delivering public services and help it to tackle social welfare fraud. It noted that it would take several years to roll out with an estimated cost of €24 million. 

2016: It was reported that anyone who was applying for a passport for the first time would also need the card.

October 2016: The Comptroller and Auditor General said the costs of the PSC had risen to €60 million and that there was no clear business case for the card. 

August 2017: The card hit the headlines when a pensioner asked the department to prove that the card was mandatory. The woman in her 70s revealed that she hadn’t received her pension in 18 months and was owed around €13,000 because she refused to register for a PSC. 

Soon after that, the Irish Times reported that all persons wishing to claim dental and optical benefits, covered by PRSI, would soon need the card. As would anyone applying for Susi student grants and for drivers’ licences.  

Also in August 2017, the Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty caused some confusion when she said that the card was “mandatory but not compulsory”.

She also stated that around 50 public bodies had access to the information on the PSC cards, but the Irish Independent said that as many as 120 public bodies could access the data held on the cards. 

September 2017: Solicitor Fred Logue, writing in the Irish Times, said that according to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights the state had to demonstrate that the card was necessary. He wrote: 

The bottom line is that the State cannot simply introduce measures such as the public services card, which process the personal data of the entire population, without demonstrating that it is necessary to meet a recognised public interest objective and that it is a necessary and proportionate measure when all the facts are taken into account.

The same month, Hugh O’Connell in the Sunday Business Post reported that citizens aged 15 and 16 had been issued with the card throughout the previous year, as it had been rolled out to all Transition Year students. 

October 2017: The Data Protection Commissioner started an investigation into the card, with an aim to examine the project’s transparency and its compliance or otherwise with the existing data protection legislation. 

8 February 2018: The controversy heated up when the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) told the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection that the PSC should be discontinued in its current form as it breached European data protection laws.

At the same meeting, solicitor Simon McGarr of Data Compliance Europe warned the committee that the state could be liable to pay compensation to all of the 3 million people who had the card – if the government was found in breach of the EU data protection laws.

The Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty responded saying that every week a social welfare fraud case was being prosecuted thanks to the existence of the card.

22 February 2018: Tim Duggan, a senior official from the Department of Social Protection defended the card. The point of the card was to help the Department of Social Protection to identify people correctly, said Duggan, and the media commentary regarding the card had been misleading and incorrect, he claimed. 

He added that his department was “acutely aware of GDPR” (the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which came in shortly after in May 2018) and that it had a dedicated team to ensure compliance with those laws. 

27 March 2018: The Road Safety Authority announced that the card would not be necessary for applications for a driver’s licence, rowing back on a previous announcement that it would. It seems that a transport official had received advice verbally from the Attorney General, that the requirement that applicants for driving licences produce the card did not have a legal basis. 

September 2018: Mark Tighe in the Sunday Times wrote that the state had been given just weeks to show that there was a legal basis for compelling citizens to have a public services card in order to access non-social welfare services.

According to Tighe, the Department of Social Protection had told the Data Protection Commissioner that the legal basis for the cards was the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005.

But the Data Protection Commissioner’s draft report was expected to find that that act didn’t provide a sound legal basis to compel citizens, who were not accessing social welfare, to get the card. 

14 January 2019: It emerged that the Data Protection Commissioner’s report on the investigation into the legality of the Public Services Card will not be published in full – even after it is completed.

The Data Protection Commissioner told the Irish Times, “It is not our intention to publish the full report when finalised, however, we will make public a summary of the findings, in the public interest, at an appropriate stage.”

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties had sought the report under the Freedom of Information Act but the Department of Social Protection said that it had redacted sections of the draft report on ‘public interest’ grounds.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties said that it intends to appeal that decision to the Office of the Information Commissioner.

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About the author:

Laoise Neylon  / Freelance Journalist

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