War of words over Public Service Card rebuke by UN official

A UN official with responsibility for human rights said the Public Services Card was discriminatory against the less well-off in Irish society. File picture.

A war of words has broken out between the Irish State and a senior UN official with responsibility for human rights after the Government delayed the publication of a letter critical of the public services card (PSC) project by a number of days.

On April 14, Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), wrote a 40-page letter to the Irish State accusing the PSC of being, among other things, discriminatory against the less well-off in Irish society.

It is believed that letter was delayed after the Government exerted pressure at the OHCHR to delay its publication.

The letter was officially released yesterday, with a stinging response from Ireland’s chief diplomat, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, having been delivered to Prof Alston in return.

It is, however, believed that the letter, which bears Mr Coveney’s signature, was not drafted by his own officials, but rather by the body with chief responsibility for the card, the Department of Social Protection.

In the correspondence, Mr Coveney noted his “disappointment” that efforts by the Government to “engage” with Prof Alston on “these critically important issues” were not answered.

He said it is “surprising” that Prof Alston had made no mention of the Covid-19 crisis in his own letter, and said that “no inference should be drawn” from the decision to waive the need for a PSC for the duration of the pandemic.

“I would like to reiterate the Irish Government’s clear position that the PSC is properly grounded in law and does not contravene any of Ireland’s human rights obligations,” he wrote.

The Tánaiste likewise derided the fact that Prof Alston had not taken up a standing invitation to visit Ireland officially during his tenure, saying he was “at a loss to understand therefore, given your obvious interest in our social protection system, why you did not take up this invitation during the term of your mandate”.

Prof Alston has returned fire, stating that the Government’s response had “failed to address any of the key concerns” of his letter.

He said that any efforts by the Government to engage with him were limited to two occasions — the first followed an unofficial visit to Ireland last August in which he had been similarly critical of the card which led to a letter from Social Protection at the time saying “everyone loves it (the PSC) and there’s no problem”.

The second engagement, Mr Alston said, had followed the delivery of his new letter last week, which he said amounted to an attempt to delay its publication.

“It’s important to note that I’m all in favour of improving accessibility and efficiency and preventing fraud” he said.

“The PSC is actually a key plank in a broader strategy of digital transformation. That will lead to it becoming a de facto national biometric identity card. There hasn’t been the necessary debate to agree on the shape of such a card, the purposes for which it will be required, or the protections against abuse and for privacy that are an indispensable part of any such system,” he said.

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