A stormy meeting on the controversial Public Services Card this morning saw Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty say her department would take their objection to accusations of illegality levelled at the card “as far as it takes to vindicate our position”.
The Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection heard the Minister say, repeatedly and inaccurately, that the PSC had at no time been intended as a mandatory requirement for accessing public services, such as passport applications.
For three years between 2016 and 2019 first time applicants for passports, for example, could not access the travel document without first holding a PSC. The requirement was finally dropped in September on foot of a highly critical report on the PSC produced by the Data Protection Commissioner.
“There has been a charge made that we were trying to force people down a particular,” Ms Doherty said. “That didn’t happen.”
Chair of the committee John Curran interjected at one stage of proceedings to say that in February 2018 the Road Safety Authority had far advanced plans to make the PSC mandatory in order to access both a driver theory test and to apply for a driving licence. That requirement was eventually pulled by Transport Minister Shane Ross upon being informed by the Attorney General that to do so would be illegal.
Ms Doherty replied, erroneously, that requirement had been for “online” only. “No, there was no other alternative,” Mr Curran replied. “Not to split hairs with you, what I’m saying is that it never happened.”
At the committee meeting Minister Doherty repeatedly clashed with Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein TDs Willie O’Dea and John Brady over the manner of their questions to her. She accused Mr O’Dea of “throwing out anecdotes just to make yourself feel smart”.
“People in Ireland like this card,” she said.
In terms of how her Department will deal with a prospective enforcement notice from the Data Protection Commissioner, the Minister defended her being “vague” over what its response will be.
That notice, which has yet to be delivered, stems from the fact the Government has vowed to challenge the DPC’s findings that the PSC is illegal when applied to any public services other than welfare.
“We were given directions to do things in seven days, within 21 days, then six weeks,” she said. “I’m not being obstructive, I just don’t know what’s going to be in it.”
The Minister also said she “didn’t ask formal questions” of the Attorney General, who she has repeatedly said gave her “incredibly strong” legal advice that her Department’s approach to the PSC is the correct one.
“If we deviated from what we’re currently doing we’d be in breach of our own legislation,” she said, adding that the fracas with the DPC is “a simple case of two people interpreting legislation in a different way”.