Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Ceisteanna (40)

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

40. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to set out the cost to date of the unrolling of the public services card; the reason possession of a card is mandatory for parents availing of the new child care scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50381/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Employment)

Will the Minister set out the cost to date of unrolling the public services card, PSC? Will the Minister explain the reason possession of the card is mandatory for parents availing of the new child care scheme? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

Without trying to be rude, I was not really sure what the Deputy meant by "unrolling". If it is what I think she means, as in whether we have rowed back on the public services card, then we have not. If that is what the Deputy means, then the answer to the question of the cost of unrolling the PSC is that there has not been any cost because we have not unrolled it, as it were.

I wish to clarify my question. I am not saying rolling back. I mean bringing it forward. How much has it cost to date to introduce, implement and administer it?

That is no problem. I was not sure. I thank the Deputy for clarifying that. We have not unrolled it. We continue to roll out the PSC through the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE, registration process. Although we have major efficiencies in the Department, we also have reduced payment leakage. The total costs for the project since its inception in mid-November 2019 are estimated at €69.4 million. From the first day we started to the end of November 2019, the estimated costs amount to €69.64 million. This includes a figure of €37 million for our staffing costs. However, it is important to say that none of the staff are new. A large proportion of the staff and the costs would have been incurred even if we did not introduce the SAFE 2 PSC process. This is because we had always sought to authenticate the identity of people who were claiming our services and finances thereafter. Previously, we had the social services card and that would have been administered by those staff. Before that, we had pensions books and free travel passes and a variety of different forms of authentication that would have been manned and womanned, as it were, by those staff members. The SAFE process formalised this approach, established a consistent approach across all of our offices and introduced a higher and more secure standard of identity using the token of the PSC which incorporated a photograph of the person.

If an allowance is made, as it properly should be, for the counterfactual or already existing costs, then the actual additional costs of the SAFE PSC process over the past nine years are approximately €39 million. Of the €69 million in new costs, for want of a better term, existing costs were €39 million. Set against these costs, the Department has realised savings to date related to administrative efficiencies and fraud detection that is conservatively estimated at €20 million.

I will come back to the costs. Will the Minister answer the second part of my question? It relates to the reason the card is mandatory for parents availing of the new child care scheme. The Minister did not answer the second part of my question.

That is fine. We will give the Minister an opportunity to answer now.

It is not mandatory, as I said in response to an earlier questioner on the roll-out of decisions relating to the PSC outside of my Department. How other Ministers employ and use the PSC is a matter for them. As far as I am aware, there is a paper application process as well as the online application process for the national child care scheme.

If the Minister is aware of that, then she will also be aware that the paper application process does not come into force until January 2020. That means an applicant will forgo at least one month of the child care payment. The Government, and the Minister's Department in particular, has been criticised by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. The council has commented on how for several years the PSC system has targeted those who can least afford to fight it, in particular, those in receipt of social welfare payments, pensioners and students who need maintenance grants. They will be forced to hand over personal data in exchange for services to which they are already entitled. It really is not good enough that the Minister with responsibility for social protection says that it is the responsibility of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, to make the decision to enforce use of the card to be able to avail of the services. As someone who is supposed to protect those in need of social welfare, the Minister should have something to say about this. The system is targeting the very people the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is describing.

The Minister makes the argument on cost that it is only €39 million extra. To many people that is a great deal of money that could be used to keep child care places open and keep drugs projects and community-based projects in communities that really need them.

First, I dispute the ICCL statement that Deputy Smith has just repeated. I assume what Deputy Smith said is what the council said because I have not heard that from the council. A total of 3.2 million people in Ireland from a population of 4.5 million have a PSC. For us to target the most vulnerable by making them get a PSC really stretches the imagination to its limits.

A total of €39 million has been spent in the past seven years to provide super-fast efficient access to public services. If Deputy Smith believes that is a waste of money, then I do not know what to think. Today, a person can go online and get a passport sent to her house through the post box within two or three days. The comparison with traipsing to the post office to get the form, then to the Garda station and then to Mount Street or sending it in the post and having to wait for weeks for it to come back is striking. If the Deputy does not believe that investing in access to public services on behalf of the people we are all here to serve is good value for money, then I give up.