The cutting off by the Department of Social Protection of a woman's state pension because she refused to get a public services card is "outrageous," an advocacy group for older people has said.
A woman in her 70s has not been paid her pension for 18 months because she refused to go through the registration process as requested by the department. As a result, she is owed some €13,000.
The woman, who did not wish to be named, told The Irish Times she felt "bullied" following several letters from the Department of Social Protection inviting her to register.
Many public bodies have increasingly been using the card to validate people’s identities for the purposes of delivering services. About 2.75 million have been issued to date but Ministers have insisted the card is not “compulsory”.
However, civil rights groups have described it as a “national identity card by the back door”.
Age Action said that its own contacts with the department in relation to the public services card generally involved the department providing information and support to help people get it.
Head of advocacy and communications Justin Moran said, however, the card was not supposed to be an identity card.
“It is outrageous that someone could be deprived of their pension simply because they do not have a public services card,” he said.
“The card is not supposed to be an identity card, it is not a legal requirement to carry one, and if someone is able to prove their identity using their passport or driving licence then I cannot understand how their entitlements can be taken away.”
The Workers' Party said the action of the department was "reprehensible" and was "proof that the card is the genesis of a compulsory national identity card".
Cork Workers' Party councillor Ted Tynan called for the immediate payment of the woman's pension and arrears and for similar payments to be made to anybody else who had not registered for the card but otherwise qualified for the relevant payment.
“This vindictive withholding of a woman’s primary source of income is utterly disgraceful and is clear proof that the public services card’s first and foremost purpose is as a national ID card.
“This has grave implications for civil liberties and raises serious data protection issues as the card holder has no access whatsoever to the information stored on the electronic chip embedded in the card,” Mr Tynan said.
The party called on Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe to explain a statement he had made as recently as May, when he said it was not and would not be "compulsory" for citizens to get the card.
The woman in question had told welfare officials that she would get the card if they could show her it was “mandatory” but nothing had been produced to show her that this was the case.
She said when she first learned that she was entitled to a non-contributory pension of €166 per week, as well as her contributory pension, officials had called to her house to verify her details, including her marriage certificate.
However, the department cut the non-contributory pension off when she refused to register for the card. She went through an appeals process in efforts to restore the weekly payment but her appeal was declined.
She said she had also been told she would not be entitled to back payments of the amount owed, even if she registered at this point. The pension amounts to more than €13,000 for about 80 weeks of non-payment.
She has recently contacted Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty to look into her case. The Minister's constituency office said it could not discuss an individual case.
Asked whether the card was now mandatory, the Department of Social Protection said welfare legislation required a person “to satisfy the minister as to their identity and allows disqualification from receipt of a benefit in the event that it is not done”.
It was not possible for a person to satisfy the minister as to his or her identity without being registered in a process which “results in them being issued with a public services card”. The registration process is known as ‘SAFE 2’.
“The decision to suspend or stop a payment is never made lightly. However, where a customer does not “satisfy the Minister in relation to identity as required” as per the legislative requirements outlined above, a payment can be stopped or suspended,” it said.
It said the appeals office operated independently of the department.
The department said it did not collect data on the number of individuals who had had payments suspended or stopped by reason of failing to complete the registration process.
It was a matter for each public body how it implemented the SAFE 2 standard for services.
In March last year, the card became a requirement for all first-time passport applicants. It was introduced as a requirement for applicants for citizenship in September 2016 and as a requirement for driver theory test applicants last June.
It will shortly be required for all passport and driving licence applications.
The total cost of the public services card project will have reached about €60 million by the end of 2017.
The Government will get a 5 per cent discount on the contract if more than three million cards are produced by the end of this year.