Monday 16 September 2019

Editorial: 'Doherty's handling of card was ham-fisted from the start'

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


If there's any truth in the saying 'confusion eventually leads to logic', Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty must be well on the way to becoming a genius.

Ms Doherty caused jaws to drop in her drive to bring in the Public Services Card (PSC) with the immortal phrase it was "mandatory but not compulsory". The State, which has so far spent €60m introducing the card, must now delete data held on 3.2 million citizens, which was gathered as part of its rollout.

According to the Data Protection Commissioner, there is no lawful basis for retaining it. It might be seen as an embarrassment to the Government except, in the wake of the near-€2bn cost of the National Children's Hospital and the €3bn cost of the broadband rollout, it does not do mortification.

The loss of money or face by those charged with running the country is something we are too familiar with. But the brazen, casual and high-handed way people are treated by the State is far more concerning.

People were forced by the State to get the card to access services for which it was not needed. This Big-Brother-like bullying displays an official contempt for the people whom the State is supposed to serve.

A full decade ago, the government was warned it was courting trouble in forging ahead with the card.

Enforcing its use across the full gamut of State services risked encroaching on civil liberties. But charges of mission creep were brushed aside in the zeal to bring in what many regarded as a national identity card, by the back door. The department stridently insisted last year those availing of State benefits and schemes would have to use their card for all driving licence and passport applicants. Now its scope, scale and ambition have been reined in humiliatingly.

The illegal aggregation of sensitive personal information collected by the State from people when issuing the cards was an arrogant abuse of power. A need to prove identity was created that did not exist before. Clearly those charged with implementing the card strayed beyond the legislation which under-pinned it.

The introduction of a statutory identity card by stealth appears to have been thwarted.

The overall aim appeared to be to make the card effectively, rather than legally, compulsory, as pointed out in these pages before by the law lecturer TJ McIntyre.

For the State to damage the sovereignty of any individual is an unacceptable abuse of power. Ill-thought-out and clumsy trespassing on citizens' rights always blows up in a government's face. It is a long time since William Pitt warned: "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves." Ms Doherty's handling of this whole affair has been ham-fisted from the off.

She will hardly be surprised at calls for her resignation. Impinging on the rights of individuals is bad, but to have crossed the line with the independence of the State's own data commissioner is surely a step too far.

Irish Independent

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