The public services card, PSC, was provided for in legislation in 1998 when it was introduced alongside the personal public service number, PPSN to replace the previous revenue and social insurance, RSI, number and the social service card, SSC. The clear and stated objective, as articulated in Oireachtas at that time, was that the public services card was not to be confined to welfare services, as has been reported in recent weeks, but to act as an identifier for access to a broad range of public services. Successive Governments have reaffirmed this policy both in Government decisions and through legislation. The Attorney General’s office advises that the legislation is clear and provides a strong basis for the existing and continued use of the PSC across the public service.
The PSC provides citizens with the convenience of having to submit information only once to verify their identity. As an example, about 70,000 people use the PSC to apply for passports each year; we pay more than 600,000 people approximately €150 million through our post offices each week using the PSC as the identifier in each case; 600,000 free travel journeys are made using the PSC each week; about 400,000 PSC users use the MyGovID service to access online services with the Revenue Commissioners, Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, the National Driving Licence Service, NDLS, welfare and, shortly, the national childcare scheme, NCS.
The PSC has strong public support, and approaching 90% of the adult population hold a PSC. Research indicates that they overwhelmingly value the card, are fully aware of and agree to the sharing of data required to enable its use across the public service, believe they have more than enough information about the purposes of the card, understand why their data is being retained, and do not object to their data being retained.
In October 2017, the Data Protection Commission, DPC, commenced an investigation into the SAFE PSC process and delivered its final report to the Department on 15 August 2019. On 17 September, the Department published the report of the DPC together with a summary of its own response to the findings of the report, and related correspondence between it and the DPC.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
As stated earlier this month, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, and I informed Government that we were satisfied that the processing of personal data related to the PSC does, in fact, have a strong legal basis, that the retention of data is lawful, and that the information provided to users does satisfy the requirements of transparency. This opinion was arrived at following very careful consideration both of the report and of the strong legal advice of the Attorney General’s office.
The DPC had requested that the Department implement a number of actions on foot of the publication of its statement on Friday, 16 August, within a very short timeframe. Based on the strong legal advice received, however, we believe that it would be inappropriate, and potentially unlawful, to withdraw or modify the use of the PSC or the data processes that underpin it, as has been requested by the DPC.
The Department sought to meet the DPC on two occasions since receipt of the report with a view to outlining the basis for its conclusions and seeking to clarify a number of matters of concern relating to inconsistencies both within the DPC's report and between the report and the accompanying letter from the DPC. The request for a meeting was declined on both occasions.
The Department wrote to the DPC to advise it of the decisions taken and understands that the DPC is in the process of preparing an enforcement notice. To date, the DPC has not issued an enforcement notice. On receipt, the Department will consider the scope and terms of the enforcement notice and respond appropriately at that time. It should be noted that the findings in the DPC report do not have the force of law until such time as they are formalised in an enforcement notice. In the meantime, the Department will continue to conduct SAFE registration and issue PSCs. It will also retain the supporting documentation collected as part of the SAFE process. The reason for this is that it is not sufficient, in the case of a dispute over any decision, simply to record that decision was taken. It is also necessary to produce the documentation on which the decision was grounded. Other bodies, for example, credit unions, public utilities and banks, similarly retain documentation submitted in support of applications for their services for as long as the person concerned is a customer of their organisations.
My Department is committed to ensuring that data relating to individuals are securely held and used only for relevant business purposes. The Department’s commitment to safeguarding data is reflected in its use of advanced data processing and storage technology hosted in secure, State owned and operated data centres, and is reinforced by a range of legislative and administrative provisions that are designed to protect the rights and interests of individuals. Neither the PSC nor the underlying public service identity dataset contains any information relating to the holder’s use of public services.
The Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, as amended, restricts the sharing and use of the public service identity, PSI, data to a number of specified bodies set out in Schedule 5 to that Act and only relating to a transaction a person has with that specified body. It is important to note, contrary to statements by some commentators, that the sharing of the PSI dataset does not involve sharing information regarding use of public services.
A person is required to undertake a SAFE 2 registration process only once. When the PSC reaches its expiry date, a new photograph is taken to update the new card and the PSI dataset. A person who is SAFE-registered can update the other elements of his or her identity dataset as these change, for example, when changing address. In some of these circumstances a new PSC may also be required. For example, a person reaching the age of 66 will automatically be issued with a new card with the free travel functionality, enabling him or her to avail of free travel on public transport services.