Government makes significant concessions on S-Card system

Photo: Czech Labour Ministry

Few of the government’s social reforms have aroused as much opposition as the controversial S-Card system; a new electronic system streamlining social and welfare benefit payments which is to come into force in January. In the face of growing opposition from left-wing parties, the National Disability Council and even the Ombudsman, the centre-right government has now promised to amend the law which would make S-Card payments mandatory for everyone concerned.

Photo: Czech Labour Ministry
The electronic S-Card was meant to take the system of welfare benefit payments into the 21st century but, like the ill-fated electronic health card system which the government was forced to scrap earlier this year, it has run into serious problems. The plan to streamline social and welfare benefit payments to newly-established bank accounts run by Česká Spořitelna, the largest bank on the market, has come under fire from all sides. Critics argue that recipients living in small villages may have problems getting to a money machine and would inevitably lose money on the transaction from their already meagre state contribution; everyone on welfare would be forced to have an account at Česká Spořitelna, which was selected by the government to run the operation, even if they already have an account elsewhere. And, last but not least, the banking institution would be privy to people’s personal data which could easily be abused. To sum it up the government would save millions of crowns on postal services, Česká Sporitelna would make money managing the accounts and those on welfare would gain very little.

Petr Nečas,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Welfare recipients threatened to take the matter to court and the opposition-controlled Senate on Thursday expressed support for a proposal to abolish the S-Card system which its chairman described as “a dangerous attempt to further privatize public services”. Former Constitutional court judge Eliška Wágnerová, a newly elected senator for the Green Party, expressed the view that the S-Card system was not just unethical, it was downright unconstitutional. In the face of the hue and cry, the government quickly backtracked on its plans.

At a press conference in Prague on Friday Prime Minister Petr Nečas announced that the government had renegotiated the deal with Česká Spořitelna and the Czech Postal Service resulting in an agreement that S-Cards will not be mandatory for payments, serving merely as an ID.

“We regard the S-Card system as just another option that recipients of welfare can use. I am all for modern technology but it must not be forced upon users against their will. This must be a matter of gradual evolution. We will amend the law and introduce S-Card payments on a voluntary basis. The card will only serve as an ID and people will be free to decide whether they want their benefits sent to the S-card account, a different account or a postal cheque. It will only be compulsory for people below the poverty line where there is a substantiated risk of the funds being abused for gambling, alcohol and cigarettes.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
People who opt to use the S-Cards will not have to pay banking fees for drawing money from their account no matter how many times they chose to do so, those who want it delivered by Czech Post will also get the service for free. Those who want it channelled from their S-Card account to a different one will not pay a transfer fee. The card will allow cashback payments. And the government has opened talks with the anti-monopoly office and the office for personal data protection to reassure them on any outstanding issues. The prime minister stressed that he wanted to dispel public fears that threatened to scupper a system intended to improve public services in welfare. Over a million S-cards will be issued by the end of the year and in making some significant concessions the prime minister is hoping to turn the tide of public dissatisfaction and get more people to jump on the bandwagon of what he claims will be a modern, fast and user-friendly service.