Ministers in 2004 saw potential of public services card as ‘national ID’

Records reveal concerns over Common Travel Area if UK introduced ID cards

Public services card

Public services card

 

The possibility that the State’s public services card (PSC) might eventually become a national identity card was discussed by the then Fianna Fáil-led government in 2004 and 2005, official government documents reveal.

Current Government Ministers have insisted the card, which has been issued since 2011 to individuals seeking State services such as welfare payments, was not and never would become a national identity card.

However, a memorandum for government in 2004 stated that then ministers for social welfare and finance, Mary Coughlan and Charlie McCreevy, were “of the view” that work on the underlying framework for the card needed to “take account of the possible use of a public service card as a national identity card in the future”.

Draft terms of reference for a steering committee established by the government at the time, to work on the card project, said it would address the need for a framework to underpin policy decisions in relation to wider use of the card, for example “possible use of a public service card as a national identity card”.

That committee would also look at the potential for the card to be used as a “proof of age card” and as “a secure token of identity generally”.

It was also to have regard to the need for a common policy approach to issues at a European level, including proposals for “common EU cards and reciprocation of public identity between member states”, and “developments nationally and internationally in relation to security”.

Privacy requirements and data protection legislation were also to be taken into account by the committee.

While a memo to government in 2005 indicated the government was not being asked to decide at that time on making the card a national ID card, the records make it clear that it might ultimately be considered.

A July 2005 memo to government presented by then finance and social and family affairs ministers Brian Cowen and Seamus Brennan, noted the British government had “advanced plans to introduce a national identity card, that over time, will become mandatory”.

“This emerging need to prove identity in the UK may, if progressed, have significant implications for the continued operation of the Common Travel Area. Equally, it may have significant implications for Irish citizens living and/or working in Northern Ireland, ” the memo said.

The plan for such an ID card in the UK, introduced by the Blair government in the wake of the September 2001 attacks in the US, was dropped by then home secretary Theresa May in 2010 following a public campaign of opposition.

Stealth

Some 2.8 million cards have been issued since 2011 and the Government aims to bring that total to 3 million by the end of the year. Privacy and legal experts from both Ireland and Britain have expressed concern that the PSC was becoming a national identity card “by stealth”.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act also show the government was informed in 2004 and 2005 about the potential privacy concerns about the card project. The July 2005 government memo said primary legislation was required because of the implications of the card for identity management and privacy.

The government was told that the steering committee working on the framework for the cards believed a public relations/consultation strategy was required to “draw the many strands of identity management work together and convey a consistent and coherent public message”.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is shortly expected to publish answers to a set of questions posed by the Data Protection Commissioner, who has also expressed concerns that plans for the card meant it was evolving into a form of national identity card.

In August, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted the public service card was not and would never become a national identity card and that he was confident there was a legislative basis for the card.

Writing in The Irish Times, also in August, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said he had heard calls for a debate on whether the card was becoming a national identity card and that it was “not, was never intended, and will not be used as such”. He said the 2005 social welfare legislation which provided for the card prohibited this.