Friday 18 October 2019

Government accused of 'demonising' data watchdog over controversial public services card - report

Employment Affairs and Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Employment Affairs and Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

The government has been accused of a bid to “demonise” the data protection watchdog and “undermining” her office in it’s rejection of the damning findings of a report on the controversial Public Services Card (PSC).

PSCs were first introduced to obtain social welfare benefits but it has been rolled out to other services.

Critics of the €60m project have raised privacy concerns and claimed it amounted to the introduction of a national identity card through the back door.

The report by Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) Helen Dixon’s office on its investigation of the card was published this evening.

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

It found that it was unlawful to force individuals to obtain a PSC to access State services like passports and drivers’ licences. The report also found that it was illegal to retain the data of the three million people who hold a card.

The DPC’s head of communications welcomed the publication of the report and said the watchdog is preparing an enforcement notice.

The government has rejected its findings and said it is prepared to contest the issue through the courts if necessary. Social Protection minister Regina Doherty said the government won’t be complying “with any of the instructions with regard to the findings”.

She inisted on RTÉ Radio that: “We have strong legal advice that the existing social welfare legislation provides a robust legal basis for my department to issue PSCs for use by a number of bodies across the public sector,”

The issue was raised by several opposition TDs in the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said: “I get the feeling there has been an attempt almost to demonise the Data Protection Commissioner in terms of her report.”

He said the government should respect the DPC’s remit and responsibility on how data is collected, handled and managed.

Mr Martin added: “I always felt it was fundamentally wrong to say it was mandatory to use a public services card to avail of other services.” He called for a debate on the PSC controversy.

Read more: Government gears up for court battle over Public Services Card

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he has no objection to a debate.

He insisted the government “absolutely respects” the DPC but it does not agree with her findings on the legal basis for the PSC which he argued has been “an extraordinary success”.

Later Sinn Féin TD John Brady claimed the government’s handling of the issue has been “shambolic”. and its “undermining of the Data Protection Commissioner has been unbelievable”.

He asked Mr Varadkar if he has full confidence in the DPC and the Taoiseach insisted that he did. He added: “However, as is often the case with decisions made by commissioners and regulators, there is a right of appeal. This is a democracy and anybody in a democracy can appeal a decision if they believe it to be incorrect.”

Read more: Strategy of developing a one-card-fits-all system lies in tatters

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