The Problem With ID Cards

“Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on compulsory ID cards as the Tory Right demand, let that money provide thousands more police officers on the beat in our local communities.” – Tony Blair MP – Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, The Labour Party. 31st October 1995, Labour Party Conference.

Ten years later, on the 25th May 2005, the Labour Party published the National Identity Cards Bill, setting forth its plans for a National Identity Register and, eventually, compulsory identity cards for all British citizens.

Now, following Home Secretary Alan Johnson’s recent unveiling of the new card, it is time to question why this apparent paradigm shift has taken place and what the implications are for the British public.

The identity card dilemma is not new; in 1939 Winston Churchill gave a speech concerning his wartime government’s introduction of compulsory identity cards. “Perhaps it might seem a paradox that a war undertaken in the name of liberty and right should require as a necessary part of its processes the surrender for the time being of so many dearly valued liberties and rights. We are sure that these liberties will be in hands which will not abuse them, which will cherish and guard them, and we should look forward to the day, surely and confidently we look forward to the day, when our liberties and rights will be restored to us and when we will be able to share them with the peoples to whom such blessings are unknown.” Churchill lost the post war election and subsequently compulsory identity cards were not abolished until 1950.

Since then much has changed – but does the current climate in the UK resemble that of 1939, when the cards were seen as a necessary evil to stabilise and protect the nation? Are identity cards a necessary surrender of our liberties and rights, protecting us against terrorism and crime, as they propose to?

It is important to look at the principle argument against the National Identity Register. A democratic government should be the servant of its people; its citizens have the right to privacy and liberty. The Identity Cards Bill proposes the maintenance of a National Identity Register containing at least fifty pieces of information on all citizens, directly linked to an identity card that will eventually be compulsory. Surely this is a direct challenge to the principles of democracy, treating all citizens with suspicion, without investigation?

Perhaps it is necessary in some cases to strike a balance between these principles and the benefits of their infringement, but what are the supposed benefits of the National Identity Register?

Many proponents of the bill suggest that in light of the high-profile terrorist attacks of the past decade the current international climate demands that steps be taken to increase protection against terrorism. However David Blunkett and Charles Clarke, both former Home Secretaries, have admitted on record that identity cards would not have prevented the London bombings. Surely then the removal of civil liberties in response to terror exacerbates the impact of an attack, playing as it does into the hands of those responsible by further affecting the lives of those targeted? Some would suggest that this represents a mission accomplished for terrorists.

It’s also worth noting that the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks were carrying identity cards, along with those responsible for the Madrid bombings. In fact, according to a report by Privacy International, 66% of known terrorists use their own, true identities and 80% of the 25 countries most affected by terrorism since 1986 already used national identity cards. Former Home Secretary Charles Clarke pointed to the tracing of the Madrid bombers through their identity cards, which were used for purchases and linked to mobile phone records, as evidence for the benefits of the new scheme. The implication that identification may need to be shown when purchasing any one of the myriad of items employed in terrorism is frightening evidence of the encroachment of Big Brother to many.

There are also many practical obstacles facing the proposed scheme. The battle against fraud and identity theft is cited as one of the main benefits of the scheme, yet the majority of fraud takes place remotely, over the telephone or online – not in person, and the vast majority of benefit fraud concerns falsification of circumstances – not identity. It has been suggested that the opposite could occur, whereby the National Identity Register could help fraudsters and even terrorists by providing a central database containing an unprecedented amount of information – surely a veritable goldmine for prospective fraudsters, hackers and terrorists?

The identity card issued to foreign nationals living in the UK, which employs the same technology, has already been cloned and altered for a report by the Daily Mail.   This demonstrates that rather than fighting fraud the scheme could open up a whole new market for the trade in stolen identities and information. Combine this potential with the 30 million pieces of private information which have been lost by the government over the last few years  and the government cannot really claim to be in a position to ask more private data from its citizens.

Many will argue that the sheer cost to the taxpayer of the scheme is the Achilles’ heel in the government’s proposals. Quoted at around £5.5 billion in official figures, yet estimated by the London School of Economics to reach as much as £19.2 billion , questions can certainly be asked as to where else these public funds might be better put to use. For comparison’s sake, the 2009 budget places spending on police services at around £4.4 billion.

There are certainly advantages to the scheme, including a potential reduction in under-age drinking and simplification of bureaucracy, but when faced with the arguments against identity cards and the NIR there are simpler, less expensive ways to tackle this a small number of issues. As Blair protested in 1995, perhaps funds could be put to improving policing. This issue is as problematic now as it was then, just as the issue of discrimination is, which could grow and cause further division in society and between state and individual under the scheme. A database containing information surrounding religion, ethnicity, sexual preference and a history of health treatment is a Pandora’s Box of dangers.

Why this information should be necessary beyond profiling reasons is unclear. The Home Secretary has also gone to great lengths to stress the apparent voluntary nature of registration, but by the government’s own admission the scheme will be anything but, as policy states and ministers have admitted. In fact the penalty will be £2500 for failure to register. The charge for failure to notify the authorities of a change in details is £1000. These measures will criminalise and alienate members of society who wish to abstain from the scheme.

Students will be asked to volunteer for ID cards from 2010, and anyone applying for a new passport will be required to register for an ID card from the end of this year. A bank card or a bus pass, even an Oyster card is an example of voluntary identification, information is handed over in exchange for a service and the choice is the consumer’s to make. In the case of the NIR it seems registration is very much a one-way transaction, benefiting the state at the expense of the citizen.

And it is worth bearing in mind that you can feasibly sue a bank if it loses or gives away your private information.

As the government’s plans near fruition, voter apathy is higher than ever following the revelations of the MP expenses scandal. The worry is that this policy will be allowed to proceed unchecked. The Identity Cards Bill is written with potential for expansion in terms of the amount of information held; this could grow to include DNA. Is it possible to guarantee that, even though this government may have the best of intentions, future governments will share the same agenda?

“The government forgets that George Orwell’s 1984 was a warning and not a blueprint.” – Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne.

Certainly food for thought with next year’s general election looming.

Alan Selby

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6 Comments on this post.
  • Aaron
    25 August 2009 at 19:04
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    A very well-written and well-researched piece. Well done

  • Vespasian
    30 August 2009 at 20:20
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    Certainly a well written peice, but well researched? Hardly. It’s full of fundemental inacuracies. You’ll do well working for the Daily Mail – they never let the facts get in the way of a good story either.

    Let me point out just a couple.

    1. It’s not taxpayers money. ID cards operate on the same cost recovery basis as passports. The cost of operating the system and issuing the cards is covered by the price charged – and the system isn’t allowed to make a profit or loss. If you aren’t selling anything, you can’t collect any money, so where exactly would you get all those extra billions you’re spending on something else once you’ve cancelled the cards?

    2. You say the database will contain details of people’s ethnicity, sexual health, history of health treatment and religeon. It most certainly will not. In fact the ‘system’ will contain exactly what is already collected for your passport, plus your current address, nationality and national insurance number. With this enormous weight of extra information I too can feel the very foundations of British democracy trembling. Not.

    3. You say there is a £2500 penalty for failing to register. No there isn’t. It’s completely voluntary. You don’t have to have one or register at all. Second, The £1000 fine if you don’t keep your details up to date is the same as with your driving license. Hardly that sinister really is it. And finally, it’s a civil penalty, so no you don’t ever get a criminal record.

    And….. and you know what? I simply can’t be bothered to pick any more holes in your article, there are too many. If you’re going to write an article then go do the research yourself and write something credible, not something that simply parrots other people’s arguments. Badly.

  • Alan Selby
    1 September 2009 at 12:48
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    1. Currently official figures place the cost of an ID card to an individual at around £30. At least £20 million has already been spent on the scheme, before the full scale release has even begun. The capacity for the amount of spending to spiral out of control is massive, as has been demonstrated recently by government schemes such as the NHS IT debacle, which has rocketed in the order of billions beyond original budget estimates. Figures quoted in the article show that some estimate the cost to reach as much as £19.2bn, whilst obviously this is not a suggestion of fact it is an indication of the potential for overspending. If it is a voluntary scheme, as you suggest, how can there possibly be any guarantee that all costs will be recouped? Even if the card issue price is raised to account for spending that has already taken place, some estimate that the price per head of the 7000 ID cards that the government expects to issue this year will be £2857. Again, this figure should not be taken as rote but as an indication. An indication of the large scale mismanagement that the scheme is victim to when officially quoted costs and outside estimations can be as disparate as this. And the government has already waived the fee for many airport staff that have been forced to register, so how does all of this tally with what you say? Your assertion that the scheme is ‘not allowed’ to make a profit or a loss seems laughably naive. And I don’t think any well-informed people are worried about it making a profit at this stage. Deficits in funding have to be subsidised from somewhere.

    2. As stated both in the tone of the article and explicitly in the conclusion the worries are what may become of this database. Whilst this information is not required at the time of publishing the Identity Cards Bill is written intentionally so that additional information can be added to the list of requirements in the future without need for new legislature. Wartime ID cards, when issued, had three administrative applications. By the time they were abolished they had 39; this is precisely the kind of function creep that the Identity Cards Bill has been left open to.

    3. No, I do not say that there is a £2500 penalty for failing to register. I say that there will be. There will be. This is once the scheme has become compulsory, as it eventually will be. This is a fact, and has been accepted by the Home Office as the article states. In comparing the fine to that applicable to a driving licence you seem to miss one of the major points invoked in the article – that these cards, on the basis of the evidence given by those who support them, don’t seem to have any genuine benefit for those to whom they are issued. A driving licence enables the holder to legally drive a car. Would an ID card enable to holder to legally be a citizen? Why should I pay a fine for failing to update the information on a card that I don’t want, let alone need? And finally, no assertion is made that these failures would be marked on a criminal record, this is not necessarily what criminalisation suggests.

    Whilst of course you are entitled to your own opinion and I welcome criticism I suggest you do your own research before attempting to do so. The intention was to write an article which highlighted the facts related to this issue and presented them in an objective manner. Rather than a sensationalist tirade against the proponents of the scheme I tried to concentrate on writing a critique of the scheme using the facts available to contrast the spin and rhetoric employed in the government’s campaign. Spin and rhetoric, along with sensationalism, which you seem to have fallen victim to in your response. You accuse me of lazy journalism but your assertion that there are many more holes in my article, which for whatever reason you can’t be bothered to assess, reeks of it. This kind of speculative opinion surrounding this issue is exactly the kind of thing I was trying to combat. All you seem to be doing is promoting it at the cost of proper debate.

  • Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    2 September 2009 at 01:48
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    I really enjoyed reading your article, Alan. However, I loved your detailed response to Vespasian’s comment even more! I can’t pretend that I know much about the ID card scheme. But, I do know that it involves spending money, on what is essentially plastic, to apparently counter terrorism, whilst there are homeless peope, people in care, terminally ill children etc,. that would benefit a lot more from that money. Despite this, as you’re saying that anyone getting a new passport will be obliged to have one, I guess I’ll be “volunteering” myself in a few years time…

  • Phil
    2 September 2009 at 17:47
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    Latest I heard was that the Tories are going to scrap the whole ID card scheme when they win the next General Election. So, fortunately, this compulsory ID card thing will probably never happen.

  • Ambulando
    22 September 2009 at 19:06
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    You’re a bit out of date with your “At least £20 million has already been spent on the scheme…”

    On 13th July 2009, in the House of Lords, Lord West of Spithead said, in relation to ID cards:

    “The setting-up costs so far are £245 million.”


    (It’s about 3/4 of the way down the page.)

    It’s interesting to read the whole transcript, though it’s a bit sad that the main thing that the Lords and Ladies were concerned about was whether they would be permitted to have their long-winded titles on the cards.

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