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Draft ID cards bill is flawed

May 6, 2004 12:00 AM

Commenting on the publication of the draft ID cards Bill, local Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said:

"The Home Secretary is leading us towards an expensive and flawed piece of plastic. This will do little to tackle terrorism and the £3bn would be better spent on more intelligence and policing. Costs are bound to escalate if expensive equipment is going to be installed in every post office, hospital and benefits office throughout the land.

"The government promised the public a voluntary scheme in the first instance. It is now clear that anyone who applies for a passport or driving license during the 'voluntary' period will be added to the ID cards register whether they like it or not. This Bill would bring us within a hair's breadth of compulsory identity cards.

"It is time for politicians and the public to wake up to the dangers of this scheme, both to our pockets and our civil liberties. And I am keen to hear what my constituents have to say about this controversial issue."

The Liberal Democrats also launched a 10-point rejection of the ID cards scheme

1. It will cost a fortune. The Home Office expects the cost to be at least £3bn over 10 years. Individual cards will cost £35, or £77 for a combined passport and ID card. Costs are likely to be much higher depending on which public services insist on inspecting our ID cards before we access them - putting biometric card reading equipment in every post office, for example, would be hugely expensive.

2. It will turn into another expensive IT fiasco. The government in general, and the Home Office in particular, has an appalling track record when it comes to large-scale IT projects. New systems at the Post Office, Passport Office, Probation Service, Police Service, Courts Service and Child Support Agency have all run massively over budget. The ID cards scheme would be the most ambitious and expensive public sector IT project ever undertaken. It has all the hallmarks of a disaster waiting to happen: no-one has spelt out what the cards are for and how they will achieve their objectives; it has been proposed in response to political events (notably 9/11) rather than a sober assessment of costs and benefits; building the system is complex and massively expensive; the cost estimates are vague and incomplete; and the project is reliant on new and untested technology.

3. It will lead to discrimination and harassment. ID cards will undermine the contract between the police and the public, with many more people being stopped and required to identify themselves, or present their card at a police station at a later date. Given that the government wants the police to use the cards to detect more illegal immigrants and suspected al-Qaida terrorists, we can expect most of these stops to target black and Asian people. People seeking GP and hospital treatment will have to present their card. Again, the government's concern is to prevent so-called 'health tourism', so black and Asian people will have to run the gauntlet of identity checks while white people will not. Alternatively, everyone will have to prove their identity whenever they visit the GP (i.e. moving from a system based on trust to one based on distrust), which will quickly alienate the majority. People who refuse to carry an identity card will be discriminated against - they will be denied access to public service like hospital treatment and benefits and also private services like banking and credit.

4. It will create a bureaucratic nightmare. In order to make the ID card system work, there will be a new national database of everyone in the UK. This will contain everyone's name, address, age and gender. Hundreds of thousands of people in London alone change their address at least once a year. Many change their name through marriage or by deed poll. Even if an accurate database can be constructed, the errors will quickly mount up. Errors will result in people's cards being rejected and access to services being denied. Similarly, people who forget to take their card (e.g. when collecting their pension) will be inconvenienced. Centralising the many existing methods of proving identity sounds like a good idea, but in practice breakdowns in the system will have serious consequences for both convenience and security. A successful attack on the system (e.g. over the internet) could paralyse the UK economy.

5. Our personal data will be shared without our consent. Everyone will be given a unique number to identify them which will be encoded on the card. Other databases (for example store loyalty cards or medical records) will start to identify people using their unique number. Knowing the number could therefore allow someone to retrieve sensitive information about that individual from any number of other sources. The potential for cross-referencing databases will be of great value to private companies in profiling consumers.

6. It will encourage fraud. Some benefit fraud may be prevented by requiring people to produce their card to claim benefits. However, most benefit fraud involves claimants misrepresenting their circumstances rather then their identity. In practice, the value of the card as a strong guarantee of someone's identity across a range of valuable services will mean it will become a target for forgery by fraudsters, criminals and terrorists seeking to disguise their true identities. The government is taking the 'Titanic' approach to the technology by claiming that it is unforgeable - history suggests they will be proved wrong.

7. It will not prevent illegal working. The Home Office wants to make it compulsory for people to present their card when applying for a job in the UK, and claims that this will prevent illegal working. But employers in industries with high levels of illegal labour are already required to check identity documents. The problem is that the Home Office doesn't inspect them to make sure they are following the rules. There were only 2 prosecutions for employing an illegal worker in 2002. The fact that illegal immigrants will not be able to get ID cards will not change anything as long as there are unscrupulous employers and lax Home Office enforcement.

8. It will not help to fight crime or terrorism. The police do not generally have a problem identifying people they arrest: the problem is in catching the criminals in the first place. The Metropolitan police have stated that with the exception of identity fraud, they know of no evidence to show that ID cards will reduce crime. ID cards would not present an obstacle to most terrorists either. The terrorists who attacked New York on September 11th 2001 and Madrid on March 11th 2004 carried valid identity cards. Knowing someone's identity does not necessarily help you to predict how they are going to behave.

9. We do not have a written constitution. This means the government can get away with expanding the uses of the card and lowering the safeguards on data sharing. The relationship between the state and the citizen is not properly defined in law. Every other country that has a system of compulsory identity cards also has a written constitution. We will be passing a law on the understanding that this government will not use the system to spy on its citizens or restrict civil liberties - even if that were is true, can we be so trusting of future governments?

10. The money would be better spent on other things. If the government really wants to make an impact on crime, terrorism and illegal immigration, the £3bn it has earmarked for this scheme would be far better spent on more police and more intelligence officers for MI5 and the new Serious Organised Crime Agency. £3bn could, for example, pay for 10,000 extra police officers for the next 6 years.

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