An advocacy group for older people has expressed concern at comments by Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty that a public services card is now mandatory to receive payments from the Department of Social Protection.
Ms Doherty was speaking on Friday following criticism of a policy requiring people to register for the card, after a woman in her 70s had her State pension cut off by the department.
Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast, the minister said it was a requirement that people validate their identity in order to receive a service from the State.
Justin Moran, head of advocacy and communications at Age Action said: “In January the Department told us that one in four people with a travel pass did not have a public services card.
“Even if this figure has improved it still means tens of thousands of older people do not have a card,” he added.
“Earlier this week it was revealed a woman in her 70s had her pension cut off because she does not have a public services card.
“We would be very concerned if this new requirement for the card leads to more older people losing their entitlements and we would urge the department to ensure no one is penalised because they do not have a public services card.”
Ms Doherty said on Friday morning that the card was now mandatory to access services from the Department of Social Protection and that other Government departments would also make it mandatory.
“Let’s be very clear. Nobody is required by law to have a card. So therefore it isn’t compulsory,” Ms Doherty said.
“But for my department it’s mandatory and I know people might say I’m splitting hairs but actually because of the high value of the public services that the department (gives out) - we give out over €20 billion every year - we believe – and actually it wasn’t brought in by this government, the legislation was brought in in 2005 – so 12 years ago this has been in the process,” she said.
“We believe that it’s not too much to ask people to authenticate who you are so that we can give you a fast and efficient public service to make sure you get what you’re entitled to. And that’s all the SAFE (card registration) process is.”
“So therefore, you’re not obliged to have a card. Nobody will drag you kicking and screaming to have a card.”
But Ms Doherty said if people wanted to access public services, it was “mandatory to access public services originally now from the Department of Social Protection”.
“But I understand there are other departments that are going to make it mandatory to access their public services.
“But genuinely – and the government of the day in 2005 and I still agree with this legislation – didn’t think it was too much to ask people to identify or verify their identity so that we can give them a better and more efficient public service.”
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties on Friday called on Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe to clarify the situation with the cards.
Liam Herrick, executive director of the independent human rights watchdog, said there was ambiguity about the card and it was not clear if other forms of identification were now acceptable for accessing State services.
The card scheme came in for renewed criticism this week after The Irish Times reported that a woman in her 70s had her State pension cut off because she refused to register for a card.
She has not been paid her pension for 18 months because she refused to go through the registration and identity-verification process as requested by the Department of Social Protection. As a result she is owed about €13,000.
The woman said she felt “bullied” following several letters from the department inviting her to register. No one had been able to demonstrate that the card was “mandatory”, she added.
The card was introduced to replace the old social welfare card and some other cards used for State services and about 2.75 million have been issued to date.
The Department of Social Protection has a target of 3 million cards to reach by the end of this year. Government Ministers launched a campaign earlier in the year to encourage all people to register for the card, which is underpinned by a facial recognition database.
It emerged in May that the card is to be made a requirement for all passport and driving licence applications shortly, including renewals. It was made a requirement from last June for those sitting the driver theory test.