Public services card requirement for childcare payments ‘illegal’

The State’s decision to require parents to have a public services card to qualify for new national childcare payments is “illegal” and “highly discriminatory”, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has warned.

The national childcare scheme, which opens for applications from Wednesday, will initially be contingent on having the controversial card, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has confirmed.

Previous State-backed childcare schemes are now permanently closed to new applications, although anyone already on these may stay on them for another year.

Lone parents with schoolgoing children who are better-off on their existing schemes will be allowed remain on these indefinitely, the department has emphasized.

Two hundred applications a day are expected for the new scheme. However, applications can only be made online until next year. For this, parents are required to have a public services card.

“If you don’t want to get [a public services card], there is an option to apply by post,” a department official said on Tuesday, though the postal option will not be ready until early 2020, possibly the end of January.

Postal application

“The reason for that is the IT system actually requires a whole other layer of development to support postal-based applications. What we are doing is so big and so innovative that we have to launch it on a phased basis.”

Asked what people who wanted to apply for the scheme but did not want a card should do, she said: “You’ll have to wait.”

Seventy thousand children currently served by existing childcare schemes can continue and move on to the national childcare scheme when the paper-based postal application becomes available.

However, if they would be better off on the national childcare scheme or if they are new applicants, then they must have a public services card to apply from Wednesday.

“But our experience where we have engaged with parents is they use online all the time, they want online . . . We know with the card there is an issue there but it does seem with a lot of the parents if they have child benefit or other welfare payments a lot have the public service card already. A lot of them do have it anyway,” said the department.

Enforcement action

Earlier this year, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon said it was unlawful for anyone to be required to have a PSC card to access benefits or services beyond those offered by the Department of Social Protection. It is also understood an enforcement action against the Government by Ms. Dixon’s office is imminent.

Elizabeth Farries, the privacy expert with ICCL, said the people who could least afford to lose out on the enhanced supports in the national childcare scheme were those “on the breadline”.

“We’ve seen this for a number of years now, that the PSC targets those who can least afford to fight it. Those in receipt of social welfare payments, pensioners, students who need maintenance grants, they’ve all been forced to hand over their personal data in exchange for services to which they are already entitled.”

The families of up to 100,000 children – aged between 24 weeks and 15 years – stand to benefit from a range of universal and means-tested subsidies under the schemes which will eventually replace all other subsidized schemes.