Public service card row being pushed back until after election

Public service card row being pushed back until after election
On August 16, Data Commissioner Helen Dixon stated that she had requested the Government to publish the full report on the Public Service Card within 10 days. This did not happen. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The Government is goading the Data Protection Commissioner into taking it to court, mostly as a delaying tactic, says Michael Clifford

REGINA Doherty, the minister for social protection, appears intent on goading the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC), Helen Dixon, into bringing the Government to court.

At issue is the report compiled over two years by Ms Dixon. She and her team concluded that the public service card had to be restricted to Ms Doherty’s department and that supporting documentation gathered from 3.2m card holders had to be destroyed.

The Government does not accept Ms Dixon’s report. On Tuesday, Ms Doherty told Mary Wilson on RTÉ’s Drivetime that she and her department rejected all the findings.

“The next step is that we have to wait for the Data Protection Commission to enforce the findings, if they so wish,” she said. “And because, at the moment, we don’t have anything that we can legally appeal. So, I suppose, we await the Data Protection Commission to send us an enforcement notice.”

Once that notice is ignored, as Ms Doherty indicated it would be, the next stop is court.

All of this is music to the ears of tech giants such as Google and Facebook. Because their European HQs are located in Dublin, data protection issues are referred to Ms Dixon’s office. And the protection of data costs these entities money. Now, the office that effectively polices the use and abuse of data is being challenged, or even goaded into court action, by its own government. Surely that undermines the commission’s authority to take on the big corporate boys.

The Government is entitled to dispute the findings of Ms Dixon’s office on the use of the public service card, even though the Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, last year, discontinued its use for driver licence applications, on foot of legal advice. But the manner in which the Government is taking on the DPC does suggest disregard for her authority and, in particular, a strategy to long-finger this controversy out beyond the next election.

On August 16, Ms Dixon issued a release about the report and stated that she had requested the Government to publish the full report within 10 days.

That did not happen. Attempts to have the report released under the Freedom of Information Act were rejected. As reported in the Irish Examiner, a request by TJ McIntyre, of Digital Rights Ireland, was turned down, on the basis that publication “was not in the public interest.”

In reality, it was not in the minister’s interest. In the best traditions of spin, Ms Doherty wanted to get all her ducks in a row before publishing a report that would be damning of her department. In failing to publish speedily, as requested by the DPC, she held back until the most opportune time.

On Monday, the ground for publication was prepared by releasing her department’s plan for what was headlined a “new crackdown on social welfare fraud.” The original premise for introducing the public service card was to assist in cracking down on such fraud.

Unfortunately for champions of the card, its roll-out has cost €60m, which is at the top end of what the Comptroller and Auditor General usually estimates is lost through fraud. So, Monday brought a spurious spin that social welfare fraud is a serious issue.

The figures suggested that savings of €530m would be targeted next year alone. The inference is that half a billion euro is lost in fraud, which is roughly 10 times the amount the Government’s accountant estimates is lost.

The department’s release also noted there will be a review of 750,000 individual social welfare claims to pursue overpayments of €95m. See? Look how useful the public service card can be in looking after the ‘taxpayers’ money’? All those three-quarters of a million suspects would have had a much better chance of obtaining money under false pretences if it wasn’t for the good old PSC.

Ms Dixon’s report was finally published the day after Ms Doherty’s department set out like a caped crusader after fraudsters.

It turns out, according to the report, that the policy of retaining citizens’ personal information when they registered for the card has no impact on preventing welfare fraud.

So, why was it brought in? Why has it been persisted with? Why does Ms Doherty, and the Government, want to undermine the authority of the DPC by the manner in which they are challenging her report?

It’s all about the election. Ms Doherty, on viewing the draft report a year ago, could have obtained legal advice on it. Instead, she long-fingered it. She could have published the report in a timely manner, as requested by Ms Dixon, but her imperative was to get her spin in first.

She could have considered the unique importance of the DPC’s office, due to foreign direct investment into this country, and approached the issue with greater care and caution.

Instead, it would appear, the approach is to act in a manner that will push the issue out beyond the next election. Tie it up in the courts for the best part of a year.

Thus, the country’s reputation for data protection is relegated to ensure the Government must not account for yet another controversy in which incompetence has resulted in more waste.

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