UN human rights body attacks Public Services Card saying it amounts to 'discrimination'

The Government has received a stinging rebuke regarding its Public Services Card project from the human rights council of the United Nations.
UN human rights body attacks Public Services Card saying it amounts to 'discrimination'

The Government has received a stinging rebuke regarding its Public Services Card project from the human rights council of the United Nations.

The card, a project which went live in 2011 and has cost in the region of €70 million to the taxpayer to date, is used for the processing of welfare payments.

It has come in for sustained criticism due to the lack of transparency the project exhibits in terms of data collection, and has been deemed illegal with regard to data protection law by Ireland’s own Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon.

Last week the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston, a special function of the UN’s Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR), wrote to the Irish State expressing scorn for the “confusing” 20-year history of the project, and expressed fears that the “unwieldy process” has led to a situation in which “low-income individuals and otherwise marginalised communities must now contend with formidable barriers to accessing their human right to social protection in Ireland”.

Mr Alston’s argument, expressed in a 40-page letter to the Irish Mission in Geneva, ties into the argument that, both by requiring the card for welfare payments and for certain other statutory services, such as - at one point - passports and childcare subsidies, the less well-off and most vulnerable people in Irish society are being discriminated against.

“The resulting situation amounts to a form of de facto discrimination against these groups and individuals,” Mr Alston said.

He added that the fact that the Government had waived the requirement to possess a PSC in order to apply for the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment “effectively acknowledged” that the way in which the card had functioned prior to the current crisis “was unduly burdensome and not conducive to facilitating needed access to governmental support”.

While the letter was delivered and received by the Government on April 14, it has only now been published. The Government had not immediately responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Speaking today, Mr Alston said that while the steps required to obtain a PSC are manageable for most people, they “can be a nightmare for the especially disadvantaged because of the bureaucracy involved”.

He cited the fact that the card’s existence is frequently justified due to the prevalence of “welfare cheats” in Irish society. “In fact, the PSC does relatively little to reduce identity fraud while already costing the Irish taxpayer at least €68 million,” he said.

The current Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty’s infamous assertion in August 2017 that the card is “mandatory but not compulsory” was also reserved for criticism, with Mr Alston dismissing it as a “classic example of doublespeak”.

“Government officials have claimed that the PSC is not compulsory but mandatory,” he said.

While this might be true for the well-off, those who rely on the government for assistance have no choice but to give up on their privacy and dignity in order to get help.

Mr Alston’s letter was warmly welcomed by Irish privacy groups including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and Digital Rights Ireland (DRI), who called on the Government to “scrap” the card.

Elizabeth Farries, privacy rights spokeswoman with the ICCL, said the letter represents “a very important moment in the campaign against the card”.

“Last summer the Data Protection Commissioner asserted that the PSC project over-reach was illegal,” she said.

“Now we have a UN expert agreeing that there is a lack of clear legal basis for the card and that it is de-facto discriminatory.”

It is time to scrap this project, which has violated our fundamental rights for so long, for once and for all," Ms Farries added.

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