Will report critical of use of public services card ever be seen?

Will report critical of use of public services card ever be seen?

The multiple delays in publishing it suggest a government embarrassed by its contents and a minister who wants to defer, says Cianan Brennan.

There are rifts between the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, and her own officials, regarding in the context of their disparate attitudes towards the report into the public services card.

For a month now, Ms Doherty has been making commitments to publish that highly critical report into the PSC, which was first delivered to her department by the data protection commissioner on August 15.

One week later, the minister said she would be publishing the report as soon as she and her department had finished considering its findings. “In another week or so,” the department said.

Two weeks after that, the minister announced she would be challenging the report’s findings, and added that it would now be released, together with her own response, as soon as further engagements with the DPC (interactions neither requested, nor acceded to, by the commissioner) were completed.

Last Thursday, the minister said she would be publishing the report, again “in a week or so”, and again once those engagements (which appear to amount to an exchange of letters complaining about how the commissioner made her findings public) with the DPC have been completed.

For “a week or so”, read infinity. The phrase has lost all meaning: the first time it was used was 26 days ago.

Then, yesterday, it emerged that the highly adversarial report had been refused to privacy lawyer TJ McIntyre, under freedom of information, for five reasons, each seemingly more stupefying than the last.

Releasing the report “would not bein the public interest”, the deciding officer said. To do so would jeopardise the finances of the State and social protection’s ability to administer its own services, they argued.

The department wouldn’t be able to enforce compliance with the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, if the report was released, they said. (For the uninitiated, that particular act, which has since been amended more than 60 times retroactively, is the all-too-shaky legal basis for the card that Ms Doherty has decided to bet the house upon.)

Bizarrely, the department also said it cannot release the report because it was compiled by the commissioner, who is exempt from freedom of information.

This last reason, in particular, is enough to make your head spin. The commissioner has said nothing for the past month, apart from one, oft-repeated, refrain. She wants the report published, immediately, in the public interest.

Yet, social protection says it cannot do so, because it’s her report.

So the minister is now at contretemps with her own department, it would seem. Who is the boss of whom? What must this seemingly mythical report contain? We know it’s 172 pages long, that there are eight findings in it, and that seven of them go against the department.

It mandates that the minister must immediately delete the 3.2m historical records held on the nation’s cardholders. (Why they saw the need to hold onto this information, primarily utility bills, is a question for another day.)

It also asserts that in expanding the card’s uses to State services other than welfare, the Government is breaking the law, and that its attempts at transparency, throughout the PSC project’s implementation, have been derisory.

But we don’t know the details, and those details must be dynamite. No other conclusion matches the facts. Consider that the report hasn’t been leaked. Such confidential missives generally flow from Irish governments like rainwater from a gutter.

Not in this case — we know, anecdotally, that officials have deliberately not acquainted themselves with its contents, in order to avoid the finger of blame, should the report ever finally emerge, blinking and dust-covered, into the pale light of day.

The public interest would not be served by releasing the report, they say, but perhaps it’s the department’s interests that would not be best-served by doing so.

The public is very interested in seeing this one, of that you can be sure. Why can’t the people decide, for themselves, whether or not the manner in which the largest department in the country has been handling their private data is adequate?

Over the past week, a discernible shift in the Government’s stance on the PSC presented itself.

Ms Doherty and the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, told anyone who would listen, at the Fine Gael think-in in Cork last week, that the PSC had manifested itself exactly as Dermot Ahern, the former Fianna Fáil minister, had designed it, back in 1998.

To anyone who has followed the saga of the card, such a position is ludicrous. This government has owned the PSC absolutely over the past eight years (Ms Doherty and Minister for Public Expenditure, Paschal Donohoe, in particular) and it is this administration that decided to expand its uses in September 2013, without an obvious legal mandate.

But to the uninitiated, the new party line — that it’s all Fianna Fáil’s fault, basically — could be taken at face value, and might serve to soften the blow when the report finally comes before the public.

That would suggest that Ms Doherty does, indeed, intend to publish it, as to not do so, at this stage, would most likely be politically damaging. (Incidentally, the minister declined to confirm, yesterday, if she does indeed still plan to release it.)

Except her department doesn’t want that to happen. The minister also probably doesn’t want it released, but feels like she has no choice.

The conversations going on behind closed doors at the ministry for social protection must be interesting, indeed.

However, if the report does remain suppressed, they might at least come up with a good reason. Citing the public’s interest is just insulting to the public’s intelligence.

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