Pressure mounts on minister as State bodies act over botched €60m Public Services Card

Minister Regina Doherty has been accused of ‘hiding away’. Photo: Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Hugh O'Connell

State agencies have begun removing the requirement for individuals to obtain a Public Services Card (PSC) in order to access services following a damning report from the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC).

Amid mounting pressure on Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty over her strident defence of the botched €60m PSC scheme and a failure to respond to the DPC report, it has also emerged that she could face a motion of no-confidence in the Dáil in the coming months.

"The minister is in a very deep hole here, she is in a very precarious situation. Hiding away and not answering questions is not helping the situation, but we will hold the minister to account and all options remain on the table," Sinn Féin TD John Brady said.

The Wicklow TD confirmed his party could table a motion of no confidence and would be calling on Ms Doherty to appear before the relevant Oireachtas committee before the Dáil returns in September.

The Public Accounts Committee has confirmed plans to carry out a separate investigation into how more than €60m of taxpayers' money was spent on the scheme.

A two-year investigation by DPC Helen Dixon's office found it was unlawful to force individuals to obtain the card in order to access State services such as passports, drivers' licences and student grants. The Government has been told it must now delete data on 3.2 million citizens who have been issued the card.

As Ms Doherty and her department maintained their silence over the débâcle, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service said those applying for naturalisation are no longer required to register for the card. The advice was detailed in a notice posted on its website on Friday.

The Passport Office is also now reviewing its documentary requirements for first-time passport applicants who up to now have had to produce a Public Services Card.

Ms Doherty was still refusing to comment on the débâcle last night. Her spokesman said the department was still considering the DPC report, which it received last Thursday, and intends to respond as soon as possible. "We'll make our position on the report clear once the department has fully examined its findings," the spokesman said.

It now has less than three weeks to respond to the report, which it is also being asked to publish.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was social protection minister between 2016 and 2017 when the card was being rolled out, said people should not throw them away as they will still be needed to access pensions, benefits, treatments, and other services. He said the Government will publish the report as soon as possible.

While acknowledging there would need to be "some changes around the retention of data and around transparency", he signalled ministers would move to legislate to strengthen the legal basis of the card.

However, solicitor and data protection expert Simon McGarr said this would not be possible under EU law.

"The system they set up is not amenable to EU laws. Had they wanted to have an ID card system they could have had one," he said. "You can't retrospectively introduce legislation which will give effect to a project as it stands at the moment that will be compliant with EU law."