“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.