Government backs down on public services card

Department of Social Protection acknowledges individuals cannot be compelled to use card for services

The Department of Social Protection has acknowledged that the controversial public services card (PSC) cannot be made a mandatory requirement for accessing public services.

The move marks a climbdown for the department and by extension the Government, which has formally agreed to withdraw an appeal challenging a Data Protection Commission ruling

The department has also agreed to make changes to the way it processes personal information and to provide considerably more detail to the public regarding what data it is processing.

In addition it has agreed to ensure that any data collected during the registration process for a card, that is not deemed essential, is permanently deleted or irreversibly redacted.

The move means it can continue processing personal data to authenticate a person’s identity and issue them with a card that can also be used to access other State services.

However, in doing so it acknowledges that, while it can compel individuals to have such a card to access its services, other bodies cannot force members of the public to register for the card.

The government-issued card, which holds an individual’s name, photograph, signature and PPS number, was first introduced as a pilot project in 2011 and later rolled out more widely for those claiming social welfare.

However, it soon emerged that other government departments were also demanding the card be used for those applying for, among other things, driving licences, education grants and dental and optical benefits.

A range of campaigners, including Digital Rights Ireland, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Age Action and privacy law experts objected to the card, which then minister for social protection Regina Doherty said was "mandatory but not compulsory".

No basis in law

A report by the Data Protection Commission found there was no basis in law for public bodies to insist that people accessing services have the card outside of the Department of Social Protection, which could demand it to access payments.

It also ruled the department had misinterpreted some of the founding legislation the card operates under.

The enforcement notice it duly issued required the department to cease processing of data for the registration and the issuing of cards, which the department subsequently appealed.

Significant adjustments are to be made to the department’s approach to the retention of applicants’ personal information under the new agreement. This is due to a recognition that a system founded on the blanket and indefinite retention of all information contained in documents submitted in support of a PSC application “does not strike an appropriate balance between an applicant’s rights under data protection law”.

"I am very pleased that this matter has been resolved. Given the high level of PSC/MyGovID take-up, today's agreement is good news both for our citizens and public service providers," said Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys.

“Most importantly the agreement means that members of the public can continue to apply for their PSC for the purposes of transacting with government departments, which has proven extremely useful given the increased online interaction during Covid.”