Is this the arrival of the Police State or just a simple roll out of an efficient identity card?
I have to admit, I originally didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
When the row over the Public Services Card erupted over a week ago, I felt this was a silly season row over what, I deemed to be, a non-issue.
I felt if people are happy to use their passports and their driving licence, what is the problem with the scope of the public services card being expanded?
But then I dug a bit deeper and I have to say many of the concerns that have been expressed are legitimate.
Despite countless Government denials in recent days, if the PSC walks like a national ID card and talks like a national ID card, then guess what — it is a national ID card.
The ongoing furore about the Public Services Card has raised very important questions about the use of personal data by various organs of the State and how such data is protected.
What we have learned in recent days is that the card is “not compulsory but mandatory” to access many of the essential services of the state, as claimed by Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty.
She had said that no one would be “dragged kicking and screaming” to have a card.
Doherty, who has managed to infuriate her ministerial colleagues with her comments, was speaking after an elderly woman had her pension cut off by the Department of Social Protection because she refused to register for the card.
In total, the money withheld is about €13,000.
The woman said she had felt “bullied” by officials and that no one could demonstrate to her that registering for the card was mandatory.
Then it emerged that the card will be needed for passport renewals from next year, for visits to the dentist and for people to get replacement spectacles, which led to the inevitable charge that the Government was trying to introduce a national ID card by stealth without the proper legislation being in place.
Such fears have been best articulated by TJ McIntyre, a lecturer in the UCD Sutherland School of Law, chair of Digital Rights Ireland and consultant with FP Logue Solicitors.
McIntyre has argued both on radio and in print that the Government’s actions to date leave an awful lot to be desired.
“The Government’s strategy is one of making the PSC effectively rather than legally compulsory — by cutting off benefits such as pensions and refusing driving licences and passports unless a person registers. Whether or not the PSC is required by law is immaterial if you cannot function in society without it,” he said.
In response to McIntyre’s well-argued points, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and other senior ministers have insisted that it is not a national ID card because gardaí and private bodies are prohibited from asking to see it. They have argued that the 2005 Act gives the government a legislative basis to expand the uses of the card.
But this defence has been debunked as the department is planning to remove this safeguard. Under the Social Welfare Bill 2017 gardaí and any private firm will be able to use the PSC as proof of identity, as McIntyre also pointed out.
But amid all the praise heaped upon the card from government circles, it is worth remembering the criticisms from other offices of state as to its uses, its cost and its dangers.
In 2014, the outgoing Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes singled out the Department of Social Protection for special criticism, saying: “I would like to say specifically that I am entirely unsatisfied with the arrangements in place for the oversight of personal data in the Department of Social Protection.”
Mr Hawkes’ successor, Helen Dixon, too has voiced her concerns about how all of this has played out.
Ms Dixon and her staff have “strongly conveyed their views” on numerous occasions to the department, that there was a “pressing need for updated, clearer and more detailed information to be communicated to the public” regarding the mandatory use of the card for accessing public services.
It has emerged that Ms Doherty’s Department of Social Protection has been told by the State’s data protection watchdog to outline how social welfare legislation provides a “robust legal basis” for the public services project.
The Data Protection Commissioner said it had sought that the department publish a comprehensive list of questions and answers relating to the public services card project. The commissioner said the list of questions to be answered and published by the department had been provided by her office.
“The questions include such matters as: how the legislative provisions set out in the relevant Social Welfare Acts, which have been cited to the Data Protection Commissioner as the legal basis for the PSC, provide a robust legal basis for what is now being implemented across the public sector, beyond public services provided by the Department of Social Protection?”
But the State’s financial watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General, has held a negative view of the PSC, saying the business case for its existence has not been successfully made.
In a damning 2016 report, the C&AG Seamus McCarthy found that there was “no business case” for the PSC, adding there had been no adequate assessment of the costs and risks associated with it.
But if all of the safeguards are present, then why has the Government made such a poor job of convincing the public?
It is a matter of faith?
The bottom line is that ministers have not been convincing enough that we are not on the road to a national ID card system, given where we are now.
The lack of adequate public debate on this issue has further been undermined by jesuitical comments like the card not being compulsory but mandatory.
Such nonsense is galling to a public already deeply distrustful of Government.
However, if the gameplan from Government is actually to move toward a full national ID card system, why not simply be upfront about it and have the debate, openly in public?
The row over the past 10 days or so has been a classic case of when you are explaining you are losing.
Leo Varadkar’s assurances have rung hollow and unfortunately while some like Noel Whelan have sought to dismiss this as a non-story, the public is uneasy about how their personal data is handled.
The entire affair has had echoes of the Irish Water PPS numbers controversy which has led to scaremongering among the Government’s critics, some of which is not based on fact.
But, it is a controversy the Government could have done without and once again it is a mess of their own making.