At least €800,000 in benefits has been withheld from welfare recipients who failed to sign up for a public services card after they were told to by the Department of Social Protection.
The department is under fire for cutting off the pension of a woman in her 70s who refused to take part in a registration process for the card which is not compulsory under law. But the department has taken the same stance in other cases, resulting in “savings” of €802,000 to the end of July last year.
Minister Regina Doherty drew criticism when she admitted yesterday that public service cards were in effect compulsory even though not required by law.
She told Newstalk: “Let’s be very clear. Nobody is required by law to have a card so therefore it isn’t compulsory.” However, she added: “For my department it’s mandatory and I know people might say I’m splitting hairs.” She confirmed that many other departments and state bodies would also be requiring people to have public service cards before allowing them to avail of services.
Her comments sparked anger and Fianna Fáil and the Social Democrats called for a full public debate on the move towards mandatory identity cards. Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall said: “This type of public administration by stealth lacks transparency, threatens people’s rights and is just not acceptable.”
The Greens described the move as “sinister”and the Workers Party said it was “reprehensible”.
Active Retirement Ireland and Age Action demanded assurances that no older person would be penalised because they did not have a card. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has also expressed concern.
The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner said the Department of Social Protection had, at the Commissioner’s urging, agreed to publish a comprehensive list of questions and answers setting out for the public exactly how the card was being managed.
“We have strongly conveyed our views on numerous occasions to the department that there is a pressing need for updated, clearer and more detailed information to be communicated to the public,” it said.
The savings made from those not complying with the card requirements are referred to in a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General last autumn which notes that €2.502m in total savings were recorded, including €1.7m relating to suspected fraudulent claims.
The remainder related to savings in respect of payments ceased or suspended where welfare recipients were invited to register for a public services card but did not do so.
Savings were not recorded where a new claim was made by a prospective recipient who abandoned or withdrew the claim because they could or would not register for a card. The department was asked for up-to-date figures yesterday but was unable to provide them at time of publication.
Q: What’s a Public Services Card?
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