The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has refused to release the highly critical report into the Public Services Card (PSC), claiming that it would “not be in the public interest to do so”.
It also said making the report public would “have a serious adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the national economy and the financial interests of the State”.
The department’s refusal appears to be directly at odds with its own minister, Regina Doherty, who has repeatedly committed to publishing the report in full, most recently last Thursday, when she said it would be released “in the next week or so”.
A copy of the report was requested from the department by TJ McIntyre, chair of advocacy group Digital Rights Ireland, under Freedom of Information after Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon made her adversarial findings known on August 16.
In refusing the request, the department cited five reasons, each of which has been disputed by Mr McIntyre.
Those reasons are: The report is exempt from Freedom of Information; releasing it would have a significant adverse effect on the department’s management of operational matters; the report’s findings are exempted under legal professional privilege; releasing it would “impair” compliance with the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005; and doing so would have a serious adverse effect on the ability of the Government to manage the financial interests of the State.
The Irish Examiner asked the department why it appeared to be contradicting Ms Doherty in refusing to release the report. The department “has outlined its reasoning for the decision”, said a spokesperson, adding the decision is open to appeal.
In her findings in the contentious report, Ms Dixon mandated that the department of Social Protection must delete 3.2m historical records held on cardholders, and stated that the processing of data using the PSC for state services other than welfare is unlawful.
Mr McIntyre disputed the department’s reasons for not releasing the report, saying that it has outlined “no basis” for them. “There is no basis for the assertion that the release of the report could prejudice the administration of law. The minister has committed to publishing the report.
“This decision attempts to keep secret the contents of a report finding that the department has broken the law, which the Data Protection Commission has stated should be published immediately in the public interest,” Mr McIntyre said. “A desire to keep embarrassing information under wraps until it is politically convenient to release it is not a valid basis on which to refuse a Freedom of Information request,” he added.
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, who has submitted 70 parliamentary questions on the PSC over the past three years, described the Department’s refusal to release the report as “a nonsense”. “This is difficult to absorb. The DPC is saying it should be published, now the Department is saying it shouldn’t,” she said.
“If the Department is saying one thing and the Minister is saying another, well then who’s in charge?” she said, adding that she believes “this is being driven by departmental officials, not politicians, and it has been since the start”.
“The recent statements from government have all deliberately tried to implicate Fianna Fáil in the decision making which occurred on the PSC since Fine Gael took office,” said privacy solicitor Simon McGarr.
“Politically this seems like an effort to spread blame on a project the Government once tried to claim credit for.” “I think they know how serious this is internally in the Department, and I don’t think they know what to do about it,” Mr McGarr added.