Taoiseach says public services card is no ‘Big Brother-style conspiracy’

Varadkar insists card is “absolutely not IDcard’ as gardaí not allowed to ask for it

 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said gardaí are prohibited by law from asking anybody to produce the card. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said gardaí are prohibited by law from asking anybody to produce the card. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

The public services card is not a Fine Gael “Big Brother-style police state conspiracy”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has insisted.

And he stressed that it was “absolutely not an identification card” because gardaí are prohibited by law from asking anybody to produce the card.

“The whole point of a national identification card is that police can ask one for it.”

Mr Varadkar was responding in the Dáil to a series of questions about the Government’s response and delayed publication of the report by the Data Protection Commissioner into the operation of the public service card (PSC).

The Department of Social Protection on Tuesday published the document, which made eight adverse findings against the department including that it was unlawful to force users to obtain a card to access a number of State services, including a passport and driving licence.

Mr Varadkar said that the Government “absolutely respects the Commissioner for Data Protection but we do not agree with her findings on the legal basis for the public services card, which has been an extraordinary success”.

He said the Government would challenge the report’s findings but “no document of legal standing has yet been served on the Government so we have to wait until there is an enforcement order” issued by the commissioner, which “may happen in the coming weeks”.

He stressed however that the Government ‘s view that the report’s finding were in error were supported by the Attorney General and third party legal counsel and the procedures allow for an appeal.

“They are all of the view that the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 is robust and allows the public services card to be used as it was intended, namely, for public services and not just for services provided by one Department.”

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said however “there has been an attempt almost to demonise the Commissioner for Data Protection”.

He said it was “fundamentally wrong to say it was mandatory to use a public services card to avail of other services. Citizens are entitled to services by dint of a basic entitlement, not because they have a particular card.”

But the Taoiseach said there had been a “certain narrative” that it was “some sort of Fine Gael, Big Brother-style police state conspiracy”.

Insisting it was not he said that Fianna Fáil in government had legislated for the card and the Labour party brought it in.

He said there is a right of appeal when Government disagrees. “This is a democracy and anybody in a democracy can appeal a decision if he or she believes it to be incorrect.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said suggestions that the Government would challenge the report’s findings in court were “extraordinary”.

She said “given that this mess has already cost the taxpayer just shy of €70 million, saddling the public with additional costs of a court case seems like absolute madness.”.

But the Taoiseach said that more than three million people have a card which “is exactly what it says on the tin. It is a card that enables people to access public services and was never intended to be just for social welfare services alone.”

He said it had made it easier for people to access public services. “It has replaced duplication and cost. One does not need a free travel pass, a pension book, a children’s allowance book or a social services card any more.”