Public services card enforcement notice to be appealed

Department will contest Data Protection Commissioner’s decision in court

Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe: hearing is likely to be the first in a series of battles over the future of the public services card. Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe: hearing is likely to be the first in a series of battles over the future of the public services card. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The Department of Social Protection has appealed against an enforcement notice handed down by the Data Protection Commissioner on the controversial public services card project.

A spokeswoman for the department confirmed it had appealed the enforcement order, which sought to give legal weight to the commission’s landmark finding that data held on 3.2 million cardholders should be deleted, and that aspects of how the card was rolled out were unlawful.

“The department can confirm that it filed an appeal against the enforcement notice within the time frame provided to do so. As the matter is now before the courts, it would be inappropriate to make any further comment,” she said.

A spokesman for the commission confirmed it had been notified of the appeal but said commissioner Helen Dixon had no further comment at this time.

The appeal will be heard in the Circuit Court, with the case likely to be first mentioned in early March. However, it could drag on for several weeks before arriving at a verdict. Even then, it is unlikely to draw a line under the saga.

Cost of €68m

The hearing is more likely to be the first in a series of courtroom battles over the future of the public services card project, with neither the department or the commission expected to back down. Appeals by losing parties to higher courts are thought likely.

The cost of the card project had risen to nearly €68 million by July of 2019, according to information provided to the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee.

The commissioner’s enforcement notice sought to compel the department to make changes on several fronts, including the deletion of data and to stop processing applications for cards from bodies outside the department that are seeking to enrol people in the project.

Legal basis

One of the key findings by the commission in its August report was that there was no legal basis for departments other than social protection to mandate service users to register for the card.

It also strongly criticised the transparency of the project, and demanded that wide-ranging changes be made to how it was being run.

The department, however, has rejected the commissioner’s findings, insisting it has “strong” legal advice that its operation of the card project is lawful, and that the commissioner’s interpretation of legislation underpinning the card is incorrect.

In a letter to Ms Dixon in September, secretary-general of the department John McKeon suggested her office may not have “a clear understanding of the import of its own findings” on a key issue, and said the report had several “internal inconsistencies”.