UN warns Irish Public Services Card is ‘a nightmare for the disadvantaged’

22 Apr 2020

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The UN has warned that Ireland’s Public Services Card does little to prevent social welfare fraud and is prejudiced against at-risk people.

The Government’s attempts to make it necessary to have a Public Services Card (PSC) to access State services has been strongly criticised by the UN. The international body’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned that the steps needed to obtain the card are manageable for most, but “can be a nightmare for the especially disadvantaged because of the bureaucratic obstacle course involved”.

Alston wrote to the Government on 14 April expressing his concerns about the steps needed, saying those most at risk need to “jump through a number of hoops” to prove their identity, find the right documents and attend interviews.

He went on to described the Government’s claim that PSC is compulsory, but not mandatory as “doublespeak”. While this may apply to those well-off, Alston said, those who rely on Government assistance have no choice but to “give up on their privacy and dignity”.

Since the Government introduced measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a waiver was placed on needing the PSC for some benefits. While welcomed by Aston, the UN representative said that this is only an acknowledgement that the existing system wasn’t necessary.

‘Byzantine legal framework’

“It is not clear whether the Byzantine legal framework actually provides a clear legal basis for requiring welfare claimants to obtain a PSC, despite the Government’s claim to the contrary,” he said.

“The most consistent justification offered for such a demanding and intrusive system is to reduce fraud and wage war on an alleged army of ‘welfare cheats’. In fact, the PSC does relatively little to reduce identity fraud while already costing the Irish taxpayer at least €68m.”

Alston also claimed that despite Government assurances, the PSC has many of the characteristics, and can be turned into, “a de facto national biometric ID scheme”.

“The real problem is that the current system, rather than being devised in a carefully thought-through way, is the result of endless adjustments and amendments to legislation adopted long ago,” he said.

Last August, the Data Protection Commission (DPC) published a report that said there is no lawful basis for requiring citizens to register for the PSC, other than the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The findings of the report were rejected by the Government.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic