It will be useful to outline the history, rationale and legal basis of the public services card, PSC. It was provided for in legislation in 1998, when it was introduced alongside the personal public service number, PPSN, to replace what were previously the revenue and social insurance, RSI, number and the social services card, SSC. The clear and stated objective, as articulated in the Oireachtas at the time, was that the PSC was not to be confined to welfare services but that the PSC and the PPSN were to be used widely throughout the public services to assist people in their dealings with public sector organisations. Successive Governments have reaffirmed the policy, both in Government decisions and through legislation. At each stage, Ministers were always clear as to the purpose of the legislation. Various Members welcomed the development of the PSC and on occasion inquired as to why its functionality and role were not extended further.
The PSC is now used by a number of specified bodies as a means of authenticating identity. The Comptroller and Auditor General acknowledged the Department's position that the main benefit of the PSC was in saving time previously spent re-verifying identity when a member of the public accesses a public service. Although some critics have described the PSC as a national identity card, it is not, given that nobody is required to carry it at all times, nor to produce the card at the request of any civil authority such as An Garda Síochána. In fact, such a request would be illegal.
On 27 October 2017, the Data Protection Commission, DPC, initiated an investigation into the Department's compliance with its responsibilities as a data controller in respect of the PSC's related matters, including the legal basis for the processing of personal data and compliance with EU law. The Department co-operated fully with the investigation, including through the provision of detailed responses to a draft report provided to the Department. The final report, relating to the legal basis and transparency issues, and containing eight findings, was received by the Department on 15 August 2019.
My Department, together with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, has carefully considered the report and the letter received from the DPC, and sought the advice of the Office of the Attorney General. It is clear to us, based on the advice received, that the processing of personal data relating the PSC complies with legal requirements, that the document retention is lawful and that the information provided satisfies the transparency requirements. The Department sought to meet the DPC on two occasions since the receipt of the report, with a view to outlining the basis for its conclusions and seeking to clarify a number of matters. The request for a meeting was declined on both occasions.
Given the strong legal advice received, the convenience offered by the PSC to users and organisations that rely on its use, and the high levels of public satisfaction with the PSC, it is considered it would be inappropriate to withdraw or modify its use in the manner requested by the DPC. The DPC has been notified of the decision and has indicated that it intends to initiate enforcement proceedings. When an enforcement notice is received, I, together with my officials, will give it careful consideration but at present, my legal advice indicates that the only option available to me is to appeal an enforcement notice, should it be received.
I fully recognise and respect the role the DPC plays in our society. The issues in question relate primarily to correct interpretations of social welfare legislation. As practice has borne out, it is not unusual for bodies to have divergent views on correct interpretations of legislation. When that happens, as it has done in the past, it is entirely valid and reasonable for one party to challenge the other if it disagrees with the decision.