Nobody asked for a public services card.
Often times, when public money is wasted, we voters are at least somewhat to blame. After all, we do want more housing. We would like a decent health service. We want schools that teach our children well, and good roads, and plenty of Gardai on the streets. When the Government responds by telling us that it’s spending more money on those things, we generally don’t really complain, because, well, we like them.
We don’t really ask whether the money is being well spent, and then we get annoyed when we find out it has been wasted. The National Children’s Hospital is a good example of that. We all want one. You won’t find many people going on the radio or the television to argue that we do not need one. And so, when the Government feels the pressure to get it done and throws as much money as is needed at building it, you can at least understand the thought process, even if you deplore the incompetence.
But nobody asked for a public services card.
The public services card is entirely an invention of this Government. Or, more accurately, it is entirely an invention of the civil servants advising this Government. The card was introduced, remember, in 2011. It was devised and dreamed up under the Fianna Fáil/Green Government. It was rolled out in October of that year, under the supervision of Joan Burton, who was then the Minister for Social Protection (which is, as an aside, a tremendously Orwellian name for a department).
The purpose of the card, we were told at the time, was to combat social welfare fraud:
Speaking yesterday to the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education, the Department of Social Protection’s deputy secretary Anne Vaughan said combatting fraud was one of the department’s central concerns.
Vaughan said that social welfare fraud “undermines public confidence in the entire system as well as being unfair to other recipients of social welfare payments, taxpayers and business run on a legitimate basis”.
The new Public Services Card, which contains biometric information on the cardholder, is being piloted in Tullamore, Sligo and King’s Inn in Dublin city. No cards have been issued yet, but the first are expected to be distributed from next week.
The idea is fairly straightforward: The state gets more information on who is using its services, and is able to biometrically identify people, preventing them from, say, claiming social welfare twice under two different names.
Why, you might ask, was that a concern? Well, consider this, from July 2011:
THE GOVERNMENT should carry out an audit of the personal public service (PPS) number system to reduce the huge disparity between the numbers in circulation and the population of the State, an Oireachtas committee was told yesterday.
Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Niall Collins said it was “very alarming” that whereas the population of the State was 4.58 million, there were 7.2 million PPS numbers, a difference of 2.62 million.
Having more than 2.5 million more PPS numbers in circulation than there are people can be explained in several ways, of course. The first explanation is that people who died were not having their PPS number extinguished. The second is that people who emigrated (and there were a lot of emigrants in the years leading up to 2011) kept their PPS number and were simply not counted in the population, causing a discrepancy. The third possible explanation is that tens of thousands of people had managed to obtain two PPS numbers and were using them to defraud the state.
If there’s one thing we know about the civil service, of course, it’s that they don’t trust the public. And so, we had to have the public services card that nobody asked for, at the cost, to date, of sixty million euros.
Now, you might be wondering, having watched this over the past few days, why people aren’t calling on Regina Doherty to resign, and why she seems to be escaping all blame for the disaster. The answer is very simple: Because three social protection ministers have overseen this mess, and the last one, before Regina, was a fellow by the name of Leo Varadkar.
If she goes, or is sacked, we might suddenly find stories appearing in national newspapers about how the process was managed when the Taoiseach himself had personal charge of it. So, she’s safe as houses, I’m afraid.
The real culprit, here of course, is the civil service, which pushed this policy from the beginning. You won’t find the word “public services card” in any party’s manifesto. Nobody ran for election promising to introduce it. What happened was that someone in the civil service, back in about 2009, dreamed this up as a good project, and they’ve sold it to every minister who’s had the department since.
And of course, not one of the three of them bothered to ask any questions about it. Once their bums are in those nice seats, they do what they’re told.
And don’t let any opposition party tell you they’d be different. After all, this was devised under Fianna Fáil and the Greens, and implemented by Fine Gael and Labour. That just leaves Sinn Fein.
Take your chances.