Welfare recipients see benefits cut off in row over mandatory cards

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.

Identifying problems

Q: What’s a Public Services Card?

A: It’s an identity card that people must present to access a growing range of state services and benefits.

Q: So it’s a national identity card?

A: Technically, no — because technically it’s not mandatory to have one and the Gardaí can’t demand anyone produce one to prove their identity.

Q: Technically? So there’s a grey area?

A: Well, it’s mandatory to have one to access services such as the state pension, free travel, other social welfare payments, a first time driving licence and first time adult passport. It will also be mandatory next year for all passport and licence renewals, student grants and department of agriculture services — with many more to follow.

Q: So unless you’ve won the Lotto and can set up an independent republic on a ship forever sailing Irish waters, the chances are you’ll need state services — and the card to access them?

A: So long as you don’t install a ship’s radio. You’d need a licence for that and undoubtedly that will require a card too.

Q: Why not just go the whole hog and make it a national identity card?

A: Because that would require new — and controversial — legislation.

Q: Why controversial?

A: Because there is a view that people should be free to peacefully walk the streets of their own country without being interrogated as to who they are and required to prove it. Also, there is a trust issue around who owns and manages
the images and information gathered given the potential for data breaches, deliberate or accidental.

Q: If I want a card, how can I get one?

A: You have to make an appointment to be interviewed and photographed in a Department of Social Protection office. You’ll be told to bring certain documents and proof of identity.

Q: But if I have proof of identity good enough to get a public services card, why do I need a public services card to prove my identity?

A: Em, er.....

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