Noel Whelan: Public services card row is silly season nonsense

Data-protection watchdog should know better than to fan the flames of the controversy

There are times in the spring when one spots a political story which is so strange that one has to check the calendar to make sure it is not April Fools’ Day. Similarly there are days in late summer when some political non-story erupts into such a broad controversy that it is a reminder that we are still in the silly season.

The current firestorm in the political media about the introduction and expansion of public service cards is this year’s example.

Silly-season syndrome is the only thing which could explain how, several years after it was introduced, and after 2.8 million people have already taken up the card, it has suddenly become a supposedly massive political issue.

The public service card has been almost universally popular among service users since its introduction. The more public services they use the happier they appear to be with it. Those benefiting from free travel, for example, are particularly fond of the convenience the card enables.


Applying or registering for the card is a relatively painless process, and, once obtained, the card reduces the need to repeat the identification or information-gathering process over and over again with different agencies. As with all large administrative processes – whether in the public or private sectors – there will always be some bad experiences, but the fact that the card has never made mainstream news until now reflects how smooth its rollout has been.


Two things seem to have triggered the recent controversy. The first is Government plans to expand the range of public services for which the card will be required. This, of itself, is surely a welcome development. Doing this inevitably requires sharing the information with more public bodies.

Some speak in doomsday terms of how this gives rises to a “massive unified database” within the grasp of more and more agencies. However, that is precisely the positive purpose of the card. The sharing of access to the information is what avoids the need to prove identity over and over again.

The Public Services Card system either has a legal basis or it does not

Some, it seems, are now getting exercised because farmers, for example, will have to have a card in order to obtain the single farm payment. But why should farmers getting grants not be subject to the same requirements as, say, old-age pensioners?

The other reason the controversy has got wind recently is because, as reported by Elaine Edwards in The Irish Times, €13,000 in pension payments has been withheld from a woman who refuses to apply for the card.

All public payment schemes have some kind of standardised application process and ultimately the only way to ensure compliance is to withhold payment. A student or businessperson cannot expect to get or continue to get a grant while not complying with the application process, whatever it is. Why should this woman’s case be any different? Why should her situation be viewed differently than the situations of the 2.8 million people who have managed to complete the process of taking up the card?

The other vague suggestion trotted out this week is that there is no legal basis for the introduction and extension of the card. The Government says it has the required legal authority. If it did not then one would have expected or would now expect a flood of legal actions from people denied payments because of refusal to take up the card. There have been no reports of any such actions.

Some legal commentators have resorted to saying instead that the public service card system does not have a “robust” legal basis, whatever that means. The system either has a legal basis or it does not. It would be like asking somebody if they were “robustly” pregnant.

Data watchdog

One of the strangest twists in the story was the decision by the Data Protection Commissioner on Wednesday to issue a press statement asking the Department of Social Protection to outline how legislation provides a "robust legal basis" for the public service card project.

Some read that as the commissioner implying there may be no such legal basis. The commissioner has access – either in-house or from outside lawyers – to some of Europe’s best legal expertise on data protection. If the commissioner believes the card project has no legal basis then she should say so, albeit doing so now would be slamming the stable doors after many troops of horses have bolted.

While private-sector data-protection consultants have a vested interest in catastrophising about data breaches and insinuating Big Brother motives to government departments, one would expect a more useful intervention into the debate from the Data Protection Commissioner than merely asking the department to answer questions.

Hopefully now that September has arrived we can move on from some of this silliness. There are more substantial issues in the department’s remit and in politics generally which can more usefully consume attention and energy.