25 November 2004
Identity Cards Expensive and Ineffective
One of the centre pieces of this week’s Queen’s Speech was the Government’s plans to introduce a voluntary and eventually a compulsory identity card scheme. If you believe Tony Blair, ID cards hold the key to solving a raft of his Government’s failings. Benefit fraud, illegal working, terrorism, crime, you name it, it seems ID cards can solve it. However, the closer you look at identity cards, the more the Government’s arguments fall away.
The idea of this Government embarking on yet another expensive IT project fills me with absolute dread. New systems at the Post Office, Passport Service, Child Support Agency and Inland Revenue have all run massively over budget and in many cases, have failed to provide the standard of service people should expect. The Home Office has a particularly bad track record when it come to new IT systems and the ID card scheme would be the most ambitious and expensive public sector IT project ever undertaken. Quite simply, it has disaster written all over it.
Let’s just say the Government gets the scheme up and running, what then? ID cards will be a bureaucratic nightmare. In order to make identity cards work, the Government will need a new national database of everyone in the UK. This will have to hold everyone’s name, address, gender, age etc. However, over 6,000 of my own constituents in West Edinburgh changed address in the last year alone. Thousands of people in the UK change their name through marriage. Even if an accurate database is put together, errors will soon mount up. What happens if the system breaks down? Bringing together the various ways of proving your identity may sound all well and good but a successful attack, such as over the internet, could paralyse the UK economy.
The question also remains as to whether ID cards will really bring about the benefits we are promised?
Firstly, we are told ID cards will tackle benefit fraud. There is no question that benefit fraud costs taxpayers dearly, something like £2 billion every year. However, most benefit fraud involves people lying about their circumstances, not lying about their identity. If anything, having a piece of card that acts as a strong guarantee of someone’s identity will mean it will become the target for forgery. The Government says the technology is unforgeable. History suggests they will be proved wrong.
Then there is the line that having to present an ID card when applying for a job will help stop illegal working in the UK. However, employers in industries known to have illegal workers are already required to check identity documents. The only problem is that the Home Office does not inspect them to make sure companies are following the rules. In 2002, there were just 2 prosecutions for employing illegally. Unfortunately, ID cards will do nothing to change this so long as the Home Office fail in their duty to enforce the law on dishonest employers.
What about cutting crime? The police do not tend to have a problem identifying people they arrest, the problem tends to be catching criminals in the first place. The Metropolitan Police said that apart from identity fraud, there was no evidence to show ID cards would cut crime.
In the current climate, it is understandable that many people see ID cards as a way of helping the domestic fight against terrorism. However, the fact is that ID cards do not present an obstacle to terrorists. Those who attacked the World Trade Centre during the horrendous attacks of September 11th carried valid identity cards. The men who attacked Madrid last March also had proper identity documents. Unfortunately, simply knowing someone’s identity does not always help you predict how that person will behave.
For some people, the civil liberties arguments against ID cards are negated by the practical benefits of such a scheme. However, if the practical arguments ring false, which I believe they do, then it makes the erosion of civil liberties even less acceptable. Who knows who will be able to get a hold of our personal information with the data sharing that will come about? There is also a very real danger that ID cards could lead to discrimination and even worse, harassment. The Government say they want police to use the cards to detect more illegal immigrants and suspected Al-Qaida terrorists. We can therefore expect most of the police stops to be targeted at black and Asian people.
To the credit of the Scottish Executive, it has said people will not be required to show ID cards for the services it provides. However, people south of the border may not be so lucky. Will hospital treatment be withheld from someone who forgets their ID card? What about withholding pensions and benefits? What about banking services?
Perhaps the worst aspect of this whole issue is that the introduction of identity cards will cost you and me a fortune. The Home Office expects the price tag to come in at least £3 billion in total. The final cost depending on which public services insist on inspecting our ID cards before we access them. Just imagine for example the cost of having to put biometric reading equipment in every post office in the land. Surely this money could be spent on better things? If the Government really wants to cut crime, tackle terrorism and reduce illegal immigration, then £3 billion would be far better spent on more police, new intelligence officers for MI5 and the new Serious Organised Crime Agency.
The Government now treats anyone who takes an opposing view to theirs as on the side of the criminal and the terrorist. This is clearly a tactic Tony Blair has learnt from his friend, George Bush and the recent Presidential election. This kind of attitude, whether in the US or in the UK, is deplorable. The fact is that ID cards bring the worst of both worlds. They are expensive and they are ineffective and this is an idea the Government must drop now.
John Barrett is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West