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Aid to fraudsters

The Government case for identity cards doesn’t stand up says Neil Gerrard.

I 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 or 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 that everyone would have to register with the scheme and obtain a card.

Some of those advocating a card, whatever it is called, have made extravagant claims about what it would achieve. It would combat terrorism, stop benefit fraud, prevent illegal immigration and illegal working, and help the police detect crime, 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 not 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 surface. If 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 never been 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 to have 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 to establish 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 ineligible to 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 and passports, raises questions about how secure it would be in any case. DVLA data was never designed to establish identity and is 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 evidence 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 carrying 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 scheme should be the subject of further consultation. This is too important to press ahead without a much wider public debate.

Neil Gerrard is Labour MP for Walthamstow and Secretary of the PLP Civil Liberties group