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Top civil servant not attending committee is 'an affront to democracy'

Chairperson John McGuinness says committee wants to discuss the cost of the PSC to date.

Secretary General Robert Watt
Secretary General Robert Watt
Image: Leah Farrell

THE FACT THAT Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt won’t appear before an Oireachtas committee “is an affront to democracy”. 

That is the view held by the chairperson of the Oireachtas Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee John McGuinness, who said members wanted to discuss matters relating to the department, including the cost of the Public Services Card (PSC) to date. 

Watt has written to the committee stating that he cannot appear for a number of weeks  due to the Budget being the busiest time for him. 

“It is an affront to democracy, and this House, and that is not a throwaway remark. He was the one who spent that amount of money [on the PSC] on a project that does not fly,” McGuinness told TheJournal.ie.

The Secretary General stating that he cannot attend comes alongside Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe’s refusal to appear before the committee. 

Donohoe was due to appear before the Oireachtas Finance Committee on Thursday. 

Cost of the card to the State

McGuinness said the focus of the hearings is to discuss expenditure of the department, not government policy. He said he wanted to discuss the cost of the roll out of the card to the State to date. 

He pointed out that using potential court proceedings as an excuse not to appear before the finance committee is not acceptable as the Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon is due to appear before the Public Accounts Committee next week. 

During Leader’s Questions this week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the government has yet to receive an enforcement action from the commissioner’s office. 

He also told TheJournal.ie last week that no court documents have been filed by the government on the matter as of yet. 

“If the Data Protection commissioner is due to appear in committee, then why can’t the minister and his officials,” questioned McGuinness. 

“The issue here is we cannot hold that department accountable if the minister and now the secretary general refuse to appear,” he said. 

He said Watt is “not fulfilling his duty as a secretary general if he does not come in to the committee in which is he responsible to”.

public-service-reform Robert Watt, Secretary General at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe and Minister of State fPatrick O’Donovan. Source: RollingNews.ie

McGuinness said Donohoe not appearing on the issue is “political” but he added that “when civil servants are going to play that game” it is not acceptable. 

In a letter to the committee chairperson, the finance minister declined to appear before the committee stating that he had hoped court action could be avoided over the PSC. 

In his letter, he states that he had hoped a meeting between the Data Commissioner and Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty would take place. 

“I did so in the sincere hope that Minister Doherty’s response to the Data Protection Commissioner’s (DPC) report and covering letter and the Minister’s request for a meeting, might have led to a round of positive discussions without any need to defer to the Courts for a definitive decision. 

“However, the DPC replied to Minister Doherty on Thursday evening (5th September) advising that it was declining to engage in any discussions and intended to institute enforcement proceedings, which are subject to an appeals process in the Courts.”

It was confirmed this week that Doherty asked to meet with the commissioner, Helen Dixon, in relation to the PSC, however she declined. 

Under the circumstances, Donohoe said it would “be inappropriate” for him to appear before the committee this week, adding that “it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment that might be seen to be, or be characterised as being, prejudicial to the consideration of the matters in the court”. 

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has ordered the government to immediately stop processing the data of citizens contained on the card for services outside of the Department of Social Protection’s remit.

The long-awaited report about the PSC was made public this week. 

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesman for the commission confirmed that it is preparing to issue a so-called enforcement notice to the department, which would order it to comply with data protection laws and to protect the rights of citizens.

1248 John McGuinness_90541720 Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness says using the excuse of court proceedings is not acceptable. Source: Leah Farrell

After refusing to appear before committee, Donohoe went on in the letter to defend the social protection minister and the card.

“While Minister Doherty is by law the Minister responsible for issuing the Public Services Card and as such is the subject of the DPC investigation, it is worth highlighting my interest in the PSC project. 

“First, as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, my interests lie in the judicious use of public finances. I believe it is a public service obligation to carry out the administration of services not only effectively, but also as efficiently as possible.

“This enables the Government to ensure that the highest proportion possible of the money we allocate to services goes to the point of service; for example welfare, health, teaching etc,” he said.

‘Wrong’ to abandon project

Donohoe said the government has invested heavily in the card, and said it would be “wrong” to pull the plug on the card now. 

“The Public Services Card Project continues to provide a legal means by which the public can access government services in the most efficient, effective and secure means possible, either in person or online.”

While Donohoe said he had “the greatest respect” for the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner and the work it does, while he also “holds the advice of the Attorney General’s Office in the highest regard”.  

He concluded by stating that he supports the Department of Social Protection minister’s view that she cannot withdraw or modify the use of the PSC or the data processes that underpin it, as has been requested by the DPC. 

Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, who is a member of the Finance Committee said: 
“We regret the decision by Minister Donohoe to avoid scrutiny at the Finance Committee this week. The minister has been a champion of the Public Services Card since its creation, and has been instrumental in its roll out across several public services.”
He added: 

In his letter the minister also states that it would be inappropriate for him to ‘make any comment that might be seen, or be characterised as being, prejudicial to the consideration of matters in the court’. Firstly, no court proceeding have yet been filed. And secondly, such considerations didn’t stop Minister Doherty from undermining the office of DPC on live radio.
The minister claims that his interests line in ‘the judicious use of the public finances’. This rings hollow when government now plans to use the public’s taxes to fund the Department’s challenge, and the regulator’s defence, in the courts. And all for a botched scheme that has cost the taxpayer €60 million to date.
We would call on the minister to come before the committee, whose interests lie in the judicious scrutiny of government.

It was confirmed by the Tánaiste this week that the PSC is no longer required for applicants seeking a passport. 

Simon Coveney said this does not in any way undermine the government’s position, which is “rock solid” on this issue “and, if legally tested, will be strongly defended”.

The Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon is due to appear before the Public Accounts Committee next Thursday. It is understood the invite was extended to her officer prior to the release of her report on the PSC. 

The meeting will focus on the office’s responsibility for EU-wide data protection in respect of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and whether her office has adequate resources to do so. Chairperson of the PAC Sean Fleming has said the matter of the PSC report findings will also be discussed.

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