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Debate on ID Cards

January 16, 2008 12:00 AM
By Peter Black in Assembly Plenary

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are clear in our opposition to identity cards. Compulsory identity cards are unnecessary and intrusive. The Liberal Democrats have always opposed the idea, believing that it will be a potentially dangerous infringement of individual liberty.

The motion we have tabled is the strongest measure that this Assembly can enact within its current powers to oppose the imposition of identity cards to access public services in Wales.

The UK Government has tried to come up with a variety of problems to justify the introduction of identity cards. It has claimed that entitlement cards would help to combat illegal working, terrorism, fraud and crime. Other EU countries which have ID cards still have huge numbers of illegal immigrants working in their economies; the 9/11 terrorists carried valid ID cards and ID cards did not stop the Madrid bombers in 2004. Most benefit fraud involves people who misrepresent their circumstances rather than their identity; and the difficulty in clearing up crime is almost always that the criminals are not caught, rather than not identified. In any case, criminals are quick to adapt to new systems and it would not take long for fraudulent documents to appear.

So far the Prime Minister has held back from saying that ID cards will be compulsory but it is clear that this is the eventual outcome that is envisaged. If you renew your passport now then you pay extra to be put on a putative national database. It is widely acknowledged that a voluntary scheme would not be worth the cost of setting it up, whilst a compulsory scheme will be ineffective in delivering whatever objective the Government choses for it on any particular week.

As it is I understand that the Government has announced that ID cards will be compulsory for all foreign nationals by the end of this year. That would give police another reason to stop and search ethnic minorities, a group who are already disproportionately targeted in this way as it is.

The Identity Cards Act 2006 is essentially an enabling measure, setting a framework for the introduction of the scheme but leaving much detail for Regulations to be issued later.

The scheme will see each UK citizen issued with a biometric card bearing fingerprints and other personal details. The cards will be backed up by a national identity register. This database will be the biggest of its kind in the UK, the biggest public sector IT project in Europe, and hold information on every British resident including everywhere they have ever lived and every number the government has ever issued to them. The big technical innovation will be the use of biometric data, such as digitally-encoded fingerprints, to make the system less susceptible to forgery than its non-biometric equivalents. Supporters claim the British scheme will become a gold standard for identity cards.

Public and private organisations will be able to check a person's identity with the register with their permission. The Act creates a National Identity Scheme Commissioner to oversee and regulate the system.

There appears to be no reliable figures for how much the scheme could ultimately cost. One estimate is that the scheme will cost £3 billion, another for the combined running of the scheme and the biometric passport system is £5.8 billion. Another estimate is that it will cost £584 million to run each year. Some of the cost will be carried by individuals, with a combined passport/ID application expected to rise from £42 to £93. (By comparison, an ID card in Germany costs €8 (£5.50).) There is a danger that this scheme will become the Labour Government's poll tax.

The Government argues that 70% of the cost will be spent on new biometric passports anyway whether ID cards are introduced or not. A report by the London School of Economics has estimated that the true cost could be between £12 billion and £18 billion. It claims that the government has under-estimated the high cost of technology. It claims that the biometric scanners needed to read identity cards will cost £3,000 to £4,000 per unit unlike the £250 to £750 as suggested by the government.

In hospitals, police stations and social security offices across Britain, electronic readers will connect scanned cards to the database in order to prove the bearer's identity. There is a clear presumption therefore that these cards will act as a gateway to public services, something that has potential to undermine their universality.

We believe that the Assembly should use the powers that were granted in the Identity Cards Act to ensure that ID cards are not required to access public services in Wales (those under the jurisdiction of the Assembly anyway). It is vital that we continue to provide services to people on the basis of need and not whether someone has a particular card in their pocket. The Assembly should stand firm on its previous commitment and send a strong message to Westminster that ID cards are not welcome in a supposedly liberal society.

The claim that identity cards will ensure free public services are only used by those who are entitled to is just yet another white elephant of a justification. When checking people who turn up at A&E, will health staff be faced with a difficult choice: check only those they suspected of being illegal, or check everyone who comes in. Doctors and nurses would become immigration officials. It also raises the question of what you do when someone has forgotten to carry their card with them. Will hospitals only treat those who turn up with their cards? How will homeless people be issued with identity cards? Will homeless people if they don't have identity cards be denied services? The case of Ama Sumani who was deported this week will be familiar to everyone. If ID cards are required to access treatment, we can safely assume that there will be many more cases like this one.

I believe that It is likely that members of ethnic minority groups will be stopped and asked for their ID cards much more often than white people are. This could lead to a serious deterioration in relations between ethnic minorities and the police and other sections of the community. To add to this injustice by requiring the ID card to be used to access public services will rapidly lead to a situation whereby the card is voluntary for most of the articulate middle classes and compulsory for those who use public services and/or can't argue and resist the need for the card.

To require the production of an ID card for access to public services will also require the Welsh Assembly Government to participate in a potentially expensive and disastrous database project. We have already seen that Government cannot be trusted with our private data. If that database were also to include details of our medical treatment, our use of local government services and our education records then not only would our entire lives be an open book to anybody with a suitable card reader, but the risk of identity theft and fraud would be magnified many times. We cannot take that risk.

We need to differentiate between cards and similar items we obtain on a discretionary basis because we choose to access a service or exercise a privilege (e.g. a driving license, bankcard etc) and any system which, even if voluntary on the surface, is a pre requisite for carrying out a right (e.g. walking down the street or accessing the NHS). The one is a matter of choice, the other a matter of compulsion. Similarly, we need to remember that even if a card is introduced as voluntary, it will rapidly, and by default, become compulsory for those who need to access specific services, such as social security or the heath service.

The frightening prospect of a draconian future rears in front of us where in hospitals, police stations and social security offices across Britain, electronic readers will connect scanned cards to a massive central database in order to prove the identities of card-bearers. We urge all parties to support this motion to enable the Assembly to mitigate to the best of its powers the Big Brother future the UK Labour Government wants to impose on us.