Wednesday 21 February 2018

Revealed: How 120 State bodies could access your data on cards

Figure more than double that stated by minister as row rages

PSC Public Services Card
PSC Public Services Card

Cormac McQuinn and John Downing

At least 120 individual State bodies can potentially get access to the information on the controversial Public Services Cards (PSCs), more than double the number indicated by Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty.

Fifteen Government ministers, Revenue, Irish Water, and the HSE are among a string of bodies that can request permission to access the data, according to the legislation.

Last night, the Data Protection Commissioner demanded the Department of Social Protection publish clear information on what data is being collected, for what purpose, and with whom it may be shared.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil TD Willie O'Dea clashed with the Government over alleged bonus payments of €5 for every PSC issued by Social Protection officials.

The Government has struggled to contain the storm that has arisen over PSCs since it emerged that a woman in her 70s was denied pension payments after refusing to register for the card.

Civil liberties campaigners have raised concern over privacy and data security.

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty. Photo: Tom Burke
Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty. Photo: Tom Burke

During an RTÉ Radio interview, Ms Doherty defended the PSCs, saying there's no plan to further expand the information they hold and insisting they are a simply way of verifying a person's identity "to the highest possible standard".

"We will share that information with the 50 or so other bodies that are in the legislation since 2013 to give an improved, effective and enhanced public service," she added.

However, a section of the legislation previously sent to the Irish Independent by the Department of Social Protection listed "specified bodies" that can potentially access information linked to the cards.

The list includes categories of groups of State agencies that when analysed amount to more than 120 organisations. While "a local authority" is listed as one entry, within that category there are 31 county and city councils.

Fianna Fáil TD Willie O'Dea. Photo: Tom Burke
Fianna Fáil TD Willie O'Dea. Photo: Tom Burke

Similarly, "an education and training board" is another category. There are 16 of these around the country.

The department was asked to provide a list of which of the more than 120 organisations have actually been granted permission to access the PSC information and the reasons why. It did not answer that question last night.

However, a department statement argued that Ms Doherty's remarks on RTÉ relating to "up to 50 specified bodies" is "correct".

They said there are 47 "categories of specified bodies" and that "some are multiple-body categories". They gave examples including ministers, local authorities, and education and training boards.

The statement added: "The department always refers to categories of public bodies in any statements".

The department also addressed Mr O'Dea's remarks over alleged bonus payments to incentivise the issuing of PSCs.

Mr O'Dea said he has been told staff issuing the cards must first undergo a week-long training course.

"As the department... keeps tabs on how many cards are issued in each centre, the funds to pay the bonus are sent on to each local branch manager to make the bonus payments to staff," Mr O'Dea said.

The department denied "bonus payments" are made to its staff "in relation to the Public Services Card or any other service". The statement added: "The department has contracts with branch offices where branch offices are paid on a transactional fee basis for a range of social protection services including processing jobseekers, lone parents and PSC applications."

Last night a statement on behalf of the Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, said there is a "pressing need" for updated, clearer and more detailed information in relation to the mandatory use of the PSCs for accessing public services.

Irish Independent

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