Comment: 'Mandatory but not compulsory' - what exactly is the justification for the Public Services Card?
'Mandatory but not compulsory". This ill-judged hair-splitting seems likely to stick to Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty in the same way that "an Irish solution to an Irish problem" and "on mature recollection" did to politicians before her.
The minister used that phrase to defend against the criticism that the public services card (PSC) is being rolled out as a national ID card by stealth, without any clear legal basis or public debate. She went on to say that the PSC is not compulsory as "nobody will drag you kicking and screaming to have a card".
This is correct, but irrelevant. 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.
Another defence from the department is that the PSC is not an ID card as An Garda Síochána and private bodies are "specifically precluded from requesting an individual to produce a PSC as proof of identity".
This is a particularly misleading claim 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 part of this, the department also plans to print the date of birth on PSCs in future, promoting the PSC as a replacement for the Garda Age Card.
What is the justification for the PSC? Remarkably, there has never been a clear rationale. In a damning 2016 report the Comptroller and Auditor General found that there was "no business case" for the PSC and no adequate assessment of the costs and risks associated with it.
The main justification put forward by the department has been that the PSC serves to save money by preventing fraud. Figures from the Department claim that €2.5m has been saved following the introduction of the PSC.
There are, however, two problems with this reasoning. The first is that the department appears to be claiming as fraud prevention all cases where benefits have been cut off due to unwillingness to register for the PSC - including, for example, the case of the 70-year-old lady whose pension was cut off. The figure of €2.5m is likely to include many cases of individuals wrongly denied their entitlements.
#HaveYourSay: Do you have a Public Services Card?
The second, more fundamental, problem is that on its own terms the PSC is exceptionally bad value. The cost of introducing the PSC ran three times over budget in three years- from €19.8m in 2012 to €60m in 2015 - and continues to rise. This is not a once-off cost as cards will have to be reissued periodically. These administrative costs will significantly outweigh any savings from fraud prevention - to say nothing of the costs to individuals who have to take time off work to attend Social Protection offices.
Will the PSC at least lead to better government systems? The signs are not encouraging. The PSC is now required before a first passport is issued to an adult - but the Department of Foreign Affairs seeks an easily manipulated photocopy of the PSC rather than the original. This suggests that the PSC is being used as window dressing rather than a genuine guarantee of identity - particularly as passports continue to be issued to citizens living in Northern Ireland and elsewhere without a PSC.
These practical problems aside, the PSC presents an important issue of principle. If the Government believes that a national ID card is a good idea then it should be prepared to make that case in public and proceed on the basis of transparent legislation. However, rather than engage in public debate, the Government has sought to avoid public scrutiny by relying on dubious legal grounds and absurd semantic distinctions such as "mandatory" versus "compulsory".
This is, ultimately, an issue of trust.
Can we trust the State to act responsibly and competently in this area? 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."
There is little evidence the position has improved much since then, or that the department should now be trusted with a national ID card scheme.
Dr TJ McIntyre is a lecturer in the UCD Sutherland School of Law, chair of Digital Rights Ireland and consultant with FP Logue Solicitors