UK grapples with the complex issue of national ID cards

For nearly two years the UK government has been setting out its plans for a national identity (ID) card. Over this period the debate has shifted from a proposal for a voluntary entitlement card to the existing planned compulsory ID card. Even this debate is more complex than it might seem, as the ID card is simply the by-product of the creation of a National Identification Register (NIR), which will contain information about every person in the country. The draft Identity Cards Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech on 23 November 2004. As well as the formation of an NIR, the draft legislation proposes that passports and driving licences will include fingerprints within five years.

UK-based civil rights group Liberty has repeatedly expressed deep concern about the desirability, effectiveness and cost of introducing and maintaining an ID card system. This unease is also reflected within the governing Labour Party. Therefore the government (in particular the Home Secretary) is under an obligation to establish that there is a need for an identity card, otherwise the scheme is simply a solution looking for a problem.

Absolute opposition to ID cards is unsustainable. After all, it is impossible to say that no identity system can be justified whatever the circumstances. However, the onus lies with the government to establish two underlying justifications: there must be a pressing social need that overrides any other concerns; and this need cannot be satisfied by any other means — in other words, it must be more cost-effective and/or less intrusive than other proposals.

Indeed, a peculiarity of the debate has been that opponents and sceptics have been required to justify what is wrong with ID cards, while the government has rarely been required to explain what is right with its proposals, instead citing popular support for cards. While some opinion polls do reflect support, the real level of this is debatable.

For example, while 80 per cent of 1,000 people canvassed in a MORI poll in April 2004 expressed support for a national ID card scheme, most respondents doubted that the scheme could be introduced without problems and almost half withdrew their support if they would have to pay for their cards. Much support also seems to rest on a belief, expressed by the government, that the introduction of ID cards would aid the UK’s counter-terrorism efforts; help to restrict illegal immigration; cut benefit fraud and abuse of public services; and prevent identity theft. As we shall see, this belief is based on shaky foundations.

Before challenging the beliefs of ID card supporters, it is necessary to understand some of the concerns of their opponents. None of these are absolute objections but they do present problems of principle or practicality that must be addressed.

The cost of implementation

It is clear that the scheme will be very expensive. It is impossible to gauge how costly an ID card scheme would be to introduce, as government estimates on cost are often inaccurate. For example, the new computerised National Health Service (NHS) system faces an overall cost of approximately £30 billion (US$56.7 billion) as opposed to original government estimates of £6 billion. The government also has a poor record on databases. Experiences with databases set up for the Passport Agency and the Criminal Record Bureau have revealed embarrassing levels of inaccuracy, unworkability and expense.

It is important to understand that the government’s proposal is for an NIR, of which the ID card draft bill is a by-product. The NIR will contain information about every person in the UK and will be accessible by a wide range of public bodies.

There is a crucial difference here between criminality and privacy. After all, even law-abiding people would prefer to keep some details of their lives private. To say that ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’ is to mistake this distinction.

It is certain that whatever information is initially contained will increase dramatically once the NIR is established. A parliamentary committee investigated the use of the existing ID card in 1950 and discovered that the original three purposes (conscription, rationing and national security) had increased to 38 different functions.

The proposed card will result in what Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, the national privacy watchdog, has described as a "very significant sea change in the relationship between the state and every individual in this country".

A variety of interest groups have expressed their concerns at the implications. For instance, groups representing racial minorities, the homeless and mental health patients all believe that the NIR will have undesirable repercussions.

Weak justifications?

None of these concerns represents an absolute. The scheme could still be justified if there were some real benefit to be derived from its introduction. Yet none of the supposed benefits we have been told cards will bring stand up to any real scrutiny.

It seems that the government has come to accept that ID cards will have little discernible impact in fighting terrorism. It is perhaps unfair to point out that ID cards are compulsory in Spain, a country whose capital suffered terrorist attacks in March; yet this certainly demonstrates that cards are no great weapon of prevention. It is unlikely that cards will become compulsory for 10 years, when they are finally rolled out for the entire UK population. Until that time they will be useless in combating terrorism.

The UK intelligence services may already be aware of the identity of those people they suspect may have terrorist links. For the rest of the population who have no links with terrorists (and never will), their entry on the NIR is simply a waste of resources that could be better targeted.

Similarly, the ID card will have minimal impact on crime. Identity is rarely an issue in criminal cases. The police are often capable of identifying suspects without needing access to an NIR; the main challenge lies in obtaining evidence, which rarely relates to questions of identity. If UK taxpayers are to spend billions of pounds on fighting crime, arguably it would be better to use the money on increasing policing resources to help detect those offences (more of the 75 per cent of the total) that do not result in an arrest.

The problem of benefit fraud will remain largely unaffected. The government’s own figures show that only about five per cent of fraud relates to identity. Most fraud mainly concerns benefit applicants lying about their circumstances, by working in the black economy, for example. Even the scheme’s impact on illegal immigration will be negligible. All asylum seekers in the UK have been required to carry ID cards since 2000. Employers are required to inform the authorities if they suspect the immigration status of workers. Unfortunately, they rarely do. The deaths in February 2004 of more than 20 Chinese cocklers in Morecombe Bay, northwestern England, shows not only that many people are being exploited but also that the immigration services would not have to look hard if they were minded to pick up significant numbers of illegal workers.

The government believes that the scheme will provide a benefit in the ability to provide easier access to services. However, these could usually be provided by single identifiers such as an NHS card. Also, the vast expense or the massive intrusion that will result from the scheme cannot be justified by citing improved access to services.

When introduced, the draft Identity Cards Bill will propose steady compulsion until everyone is required to carry a card. This is anticipated to take approximately 10 years. It is perhaps slightly presumptuous of the government to spend large sums on such a contentious long-term project when the Labour Party may not be in power in 2014.

Criticism of the proposals has been intense in Westminster. For example, in its report on ID cards, the all-party parliamentary Home Affairs Committee says that "the government’s proposals are poorly thought out in key respects... These issues must be addressed if the proposals are to be taken forward".

Supporters of identity cards should ask themselves two questions. Is there any evidence to suggest that those countries which operate an ID card scheme do not experience the same problems that identity cards supposedly will solve? Also, if the UK government is planning to spend billions of pounds to make country safer, would UK voters feel better about introducing a compulsory ID card or spending the money on policing resources?

Gareth Crossman is director of policy at Liberty. A former solicitor who specialised in criminal defence work, he lobbies Parliament on a wide range of human rights and civil liberty issues. He has given evidence to the UK Parliamentary Home Affairs Committee on ID cards and recently spoke at a RUSI conference on this subject


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