still have my identity card. It is cardboard, was issued
in July 1942, shortly after I was born, and has five stamps
on it, indicating when it was produced on demand. Now there
is the possibility that I will have a new card, plastic this
time, and perhaps storing a range of personal information,
including my fingerprints or an image of my iris.
The current debate about cards began with a Government
consultation paper just over a year ago. The title of the
paper is significant, ‘Entitlement
Cards and Identity Fraud’. It does not use the words ‘Identity
Card’, and makes two assumptions. Firstly that the
card will have the objective of establishing whether someone
is entitled to receive a service or benefit, and secondly
that it will be used to combat identity fraud.
The Government made clear that it did not envisage a compulsory
scheme. But what does 'compulsory' mean? In the Government's
terms it would mean a legal obligation to carry a card
or produce it within a specified time to a police officer
other authorised person. Instead they envisage a voluntary
scheme, but one which would be universal, meaning that
the card would be needed to access particular services, and
everyone would have to register with the scheme and obtain
Some of those advocating a card, whatever it is called,
have made extravagant claims about what it would achieve.
combat terrorism, stop benefit fraud, prevent illegal
immigration and illegal working, and help the police detect
especially that involving false identities. Nobody would
object to having
the card, because we all happily carry plastic cards
anyway, and anyone who has not been involved in crime would
object if the police asked them to produce their card.
None of these claims stand up to scrutiny. The modern
terrorist is likely to be utterly respectable on the
British he will ensure he has a card. If he poses as
a tourist or
visiting businessman he would not need one. How having
or not having a card would help in his detection has
explained. The Government does not, in fact, use the
terrorism argument, although others have done.
A great deal of benefit fraud relies on people misrepresenting
their circumstances rather than identity fraud. Multiple
claims for, say, housing benefit, can be made because
individual local Councils process claims made in
their area, with
no links to other Councils. The police are more likely
a problem of linking a suspect to a crime, and obtaining
evidence, rather than being unsure of his real identity.
It is already illegal to employ someone who does
not have permission to work in the UK. The responsibility
this rests with the employer. It doesn't stop certain
employers taking on people who they pay cash in
hand, usually at
minimal pay rates, knowing they are almost certainly
work. A card won't deal with the rogue employer.
The proposal to start by building the card scheme
on existing databases, such as driving licences
questions about how secure it would be in any
case. DVLA data was never designed to establish identity
known to be suspect. It is remarkably easy to
obtain a false
passport. The loophole described in Frederick
Forsyth's novel, Day
of the Jackal, has still not been satisfactorily
plugged. If a card scheme is developed which
does not have a
fully secure base when cards are issued, it could
actually aid the criminal. A card seen as the
sole and unarguable
of identity could aid fraudsters.
There are serious questions about the establishment of a
national register. Card schemes could be implemented without
such a database, but it is difficult to see how, for example,
a card storing biometric data could operate without one.
In turn this implies huge expenditure on the infrastructure
to support the use of the card; readers linked to the database
in benefits agencies, hospitals, job centres, and ports.
The data protection implications are huge, both of stopping
unauthorised access, and ensuring accuracy of the data.
Could not the same money spent in other ways be at least
as effective in dealing with fraud and illegal working?
How many of those people who glibly say they would not mind
a card, because they have nothing to hide, would feel the
same when they were stopped and asked to produce it? Who
would be the people most likely to be asked to show their
cards? How long could a universal scheme remain 'voluntary'
or would there be enormous pressure to make it compulsory
at the first major terrorist incident?
We know that the vast majority of the responses to the
Government's consultation paper were hostile. We have
yet to see the Government
response. Given the wide range of options canvassed in
the original paper, any detailed proposals on a particular
should be the subject of further consultation. This is
too important to press ahead without a much wider public
Neil Gerrard is Labour MP for Walthamstow and Secretary
of the PLP Civil Liberties group