Public services card: Data watchdog prepares action against department

Department’s decision not to comply with report likely to spark lengthy legal process

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said her department had no plans to comply with any of the regulator’s instructions. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said her department had no plans to comply with any of the regulator’s instructions. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The Data Protection Commissioner will issue enforcement proceedings against the Department of Social Protection in the coming weeks over the controversial public services card project.

The long-awaited report by the watchdog into the card was published by the department last night, with Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty saying the department had no plans to comply with any of the Data Protection Commissioner’s instructions arising from the report.

The department’s decision is likely to spark a complicated and lengthy legal process, which will begin with an enforcement notice from the Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon. Ms Doherty said last night that she believed the legal basis for the card was solid, and that reversing course on the policy could potentially be illegal.

Graham Doyle, head of communications with the Data Protection Commissioner, said: “We welcome the publication of the report. As previously stated, the process of preparation of the enforcement notice is now under way.”

The report contains eight adverse findings about the project, each of which Ms Doherty says her department disagrees with.

Among the findings is that the basis for forcing users to obtain a card to access some State services is unlawful. The commissioner also found that the functioning of the card was not sufficiently transparent, with users not given enough information on the card and the registration processes.

Minister for Public Expenditure & Reform revealing an outsize Public Services Card. File photograph

The commissioner found that the privacy statement published by the department did not have sufficient information in it, and the potential consequences for a cardholder who failed to update information provided during registration were not clear enough.

It also found that the Department of Social Protection had not given enough information about the circumstances in which information would be passed by another public body to the department. It found not enough information was provided by the department about the justification and purposes of retaining documents, and mandated that information on 3.2 million citizens be destroyed.

‘Inconsistencies’

The department has criticised inconsistencies in the report, and suggested its rights to fair procedure were breached by the commission. In a detailed response published last night, the department described the findings as “incorrect”. It said the findings had no legal effect, and that its request for a meeting with the commission to resolve the issues in question was rejected.

Correspondence published alongside the response indicates the strained relationship between the two State organisations. Earlier this month the commission wrote that it was “extremely surprised” by the department’s insistence on continuing to operate the card process, and said the department “mischaracterises the legal standing” of the commission’s findings. It described a meeting between the two as “an extraordinary and entirely inappropriate proposal”.

Speaking in the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the card was not a Fine Gael “Big Brother-style police state conspiracy”. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said suggestions that the Government would challenge the report’s findings in court were “extraordinary”.

Privacy campaigners criticised the timing of the report’s publication, which appeared on the department’s website as Ms Doherty was conducting media interviews. Daragh O’Brien, managing director of privacy consultancy firm Castlebridge, said this “meant no other commentators could contribute to the discussion”. He said Ms Doherty’s assertion that records held by the department could not be deleted as per the commission’s instruction was “mind-boggling” as the commission had concluded there was no lawful basis for retaining them.