Stopped welfare payments and getting a passport abroad – the Irish haven’t been shy complaining about the PSC

A great deal of ire has been directed at the government over the rollout of the card.

10/8/2016. Public Services Cards
Source: Leah Farrell

THE PUBLIC SERVICES Card (PSC) has elicited a range of reaction in Irish citizens, from indignation to confusion to outright defiance, new records reveal.

Queries and complaints from the public, released under Freedom of Information, to two of the main departments involved in the card’s projected expansion (the Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA] and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform [DPER]) suggest that the government’s communication regarding the card has been less than stellar.

More than anything, the complaints and queries show that the populace seems rather well-informed as to the nature of the ongoing PSC changes – and not overly enthused by the government’s approach to enacting them.

DPER is the department with overall responsibility for the expansion of the card’s remit from welfare-only functions to others including applying for a driver theory test and applications for first passports. In future, it’s planned to expand that function for all passport applications.

‘Where is the data being collected?’

Complaints to both government departments between March and September of this year are split reasonably evenly. But their content differs to a great extent. DPER’s complaints largely focus on the legal basis for the card and its expansion (if any) and issues of data protection and privacy.

One citizen, writing on 28 August in the wake of Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty declaring the PSC to be ‘mandatory but not compulsory’, states: “I refuse to believe that obtaining a Public Services Card is voluntary.

Unless you can tell me what the purpose of this card is (because your passport is good enough as your identity anywhere outside of Ireland), I will refuse to get one when I renew my passport. There is no information and it has not been debated in the Oireachtas. Where is the data being collected? Why is it being collected?

Another person writing a day later states, on the same subject: “I do not want one as there is no legislation in place to regulate how my personal data will be used.”

Can you or your department please describe the legal basis for making a card carrying so much personal information, including biometric data, compulsory for accessing public services? Can you please explain why an Irish passport, PPS number, and a birth or marriage cert are no longer sufficient for proof of identity?

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Source: DPER

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Internal DPER correspondence previously obtained by TheJournal.ie detailed an answer for this question as being because of a ‘government decision’, the legal robustness of which was called into question by Simon McGarr of Digital Rights Ireland at a public meeting on the subject last week.

One piece of correspondence received comprises a letter of legal action against the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) with regard to a citizen who had their non-contributory pension stopped “because she refused to be issued with a Public Services Card”.

Writing in early September, another citizen writes that they “fully support the government’s attempts to tackle welfare fraud”.

It has however moved way beyond this remit and I believe that the requirement and the process of applying for a PSC is becoming both a bureaucratic nightmare and a dreadful waste of time.

‘Placated by cupcakes’

An email thread stretching from February (long before the current furore surrounding the PSC had erupted) through June shows one citizen’s determination to get answers regarding the card from DPER minister Paschal Donohoe.

“Thanks for the eventual response via the department,” they wrote on 4 February. “‘Advice to the department is that the approach in the Bill is ‘broadly in line with the current directive and the soon to be enacted EU Regulation on Data Protection’. (This is) hardly definitive and does not inspire confidence.”

A follow-up mail in June is even more scathing:

Further to previous correspondence and yourself denying the obvious regarding the proposed thinly-veiled public data mining and national identity card by stealth – is it too much to expect a response from the responsible Minister and my TD?

“We won’t all be placated by cupcakes.”

FINE GAEL
Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe arriving with coffee and cupcakes for the media prior to launch Varadkar’s bid for the Fine Gael leadership, Dublin 7, May 2017


Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Sundry other queries abound to DPER inquiring as to whether or not a passport or driving licence can in fact be acquired without obtaining a card.

Of perhaps most significance is a letter dated 24 May to DPER, reflecting a citizen who had their social welfare payments stopped for a period of three months as a result of refusing to register for a PSC (echoing a similar instance of a pensioner being denied her payments for 18 months, revealed in the Irish Times in August):

“My payments from the Department of Social Welfare (sic) are currently suspended on account of me refusing to provide a digital photograph for the purposes of biometric recognition,” it reads.

I did of course turn up to the PSC office as requested on several occasions, and was willing to provide documentation to prove my identity each time, they failed to offer me any alternatives to the biometric. Privacy issues were the main concern I voiced in relation to my refusal to comply.
Before I can agree to any of this I would like clarification of exactly how my personal information may be shared, both now and in the future. It seems to me the door is left wide open for my personal data to be used in any way the department sees fit, without any responsibility on the department to even inform me.
I also note Minister Donohoe as saying that the PSC isn’t and won’t become mandatory, yet now I’m into my third month without a social welfare payment.

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Source: DPER

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How does it affect those living abroad?

The complaints and queries directed to the Department of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, focus mostly on the rights of Irish citizens living abroad – specifically as to whether or not they will need a card to renew their passport (the logistics of which seem difficult-to-impossible given attendance at a DEASP centre is for the most part necessary in order to apply for one). There is still room for many complaints sharply critical of the card itself, however.

It should be noted that the fact that Irish citizens living abroad won’t need a PSC to renew their passport (which in itself seems a little unfair) has been clarified repeatedly in Dáil Éireann by former DFA Minister Charlie Flanagan.

“You stated that holding a PSC would, eventually, become a necessity to renew your passport. Can you advise how this policy will or won’t impact on emigrant Irish citizens?” one letter to Flanagan’s successor Simon Coveney in late August states.

The inquiries are not limited to citizens – TDs Tommy Broughan (independent), Eamon Ryan (Greens) and Kate O’Connell (Fine Gael) have all asked the same question of Coveney. The citizen who approached Eamon Ryan describes how he expects his entire two-week vacation in Ireland to be dominated by the acquisition of a PSC:

I only have two weeks in which to get all my year’s affairs in order when I visit Dublin. And now this? It is no surprise that I never get an actual vacation. Coming to Dublin is work!”

All these (at least 15 are detailed in this Freedom of Information request alone) queries regarding the status of those living abroad suggest that when it comes to getting this part of its message across, the government has come quite short.

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‘Sneaky’

“Are you aware there is no legal requirement for Irish citizens to hold the card, and if you are will you please explain why you are railroading citizens into obtaining this,” another letter says, moving the conversation back onto the legality of the card itself.

“This statement by Regina Doherty, ‘we believe that it’s not too much to ask people to authenticate who they are, so that we can give you fast and efficient public service’… Did I miss something? Does your driving licence or passport not do exactly that?”

Another disgruntled citizen states, in no uncertain terms, that the State does not have their compliance with regard to the card: “If it is a case of tackling ‘fraud’, please provide me with details of how much the PSC has cost and how much it has saved on such ‘fraud’.”

“This is a thin excuse to force people into a national identity card. This is why it is being done in such a sneaky fashion.”

I wish it to be known by all government departments that bow to the consent of the irish people that I do not consent (their emphasis) to the use of the PSC.

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Source: DFA

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Finally, on a sobering note, a citizen of non-Irish origin wrote to Simon Coveney in late August to ‘express their objections’:

“Having been born to a communist regime, I am very wary of states requiring a compulsory identification card. Similar documents were heavily misused in those regimes and were used against people unsympathetic to the government.”

The State cannot take away my right to a passport surely. There are already cases of people losing access to financial support that they are otherwise entitled to.
This project has been so far, ignoring its undemocratic nature, a financial disaster and it seems these new rules are devised to save its face. It is often better to stop disaster rather than to perpetuate it.

“I want to stress that this measure will lose you voters – including myself. Please reconsider.”

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