National Identity Cards
|A mock up of a British National Identity Card|
Following the Second World War, Britain called for help from the people of the Commonwealth to come and fill thousands of job vacancies. Many answered the call and came to be known as the Windrush Generation after named the MV Empire Windrush, which docked in Tilbury on the 22nd June 1948 bringing the first workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago. The Home Office inevitably screwed up and caused a huge number of problems for members of the Windrush Generation. But their story is not the subject of this blog. Instead, I want to look at a side issue that has raised its weary head once again: ID cards.
Alan Johnson and Charles Clarke, both former Home Secretaries, have begun a call for ID cards as the solution to the troubles of undocumented British citizens who have not had their status regularised.
ID cards pop up every few years and I’ve no doubt that eventually we’ll have a compulsory piece of plastic foisted upon us that will actually do very little for anybody in the UK, but which will ensure the government has all of our biometric data on record, knows where we all live and what we look like whether we want them to have that information or not.
Messrs Johnson and Clarke said, “Theresa May’s ideological and unwise decision to ditch the Labour government’s scheme immediately she took office as home secretary has left her and her beleaguered successor with no idea how to tackle the most pernicious form of immigration: illegal entry, usually organised by people traffickers”. Would ID cards prevent illegal entry? The answer to that must surely be a big fat “no”. Because we already have these ID documents that are designed to allow us to know who is allowed to enter the UK and who isn’t. We call them passports. Any British citizen who is eligible for an ID card would surely already be able to obtain a passport and, if they aren’t, then how precisely would they have managed to get abroad in the first place to require the use of an ID upon their return? Equally, anybody in the UK legally must have come here with a passport from one nation or another and so can produce that. Or, they must have been given leave to remain after entering sans travel documents and would therefore have been issued with a Home Office immigration status document showing that they have indefinite leave to remain or that there is no time limit on their stay in the UK.
Of course, the idea is that ID cards will curb illegal immigration by creating a society in which illegal immigrants cannot access basic services, such as health care, banking or even rent a home. You could call it a hostile environment for immigrants if you wanted to, not sure who would do that though. Messrs Clarke and Johnson criticised Theresa May for her hostile environment policy while simultaneously calling for one themselves when they said that ID cards would, “give everyone confidence that those using our services are fully entitled to do so”. In other words, that those not entitled would find life here hard because they would be denied access to even basic services. We’ll leave aside their blatant hypocrisy for a moment and deal with the issue of whether ID cards would prevent those not entitled to services from obtaining them.
Yes, they would. Could we achieve the same goal another less intrusive way? Yes, we can. All of use born in the UK or entitled to be here another way will have been issued with an NHS number. All the government needs to do is require that number to be checked prior to treatment in an NHS hospital being given. If people do not have one, then they can produce their EHIC card and if they have no right to treatment it can be denied. Currently, those who are not entitled to free treatment are asked to pay up front or are billed afterwards. ID cards could also be used to prevent access to benefits and employment and housing. We already have documents that can show whether somebody is entitled to these services or not and they are supposed to be checked by the benefits agency, employers and landlords. Will unscrupulous employers be more likely to check a national ID card than they are a new employee’s passport? Probably not. Will unscrupulous landlords ask for proof from new tenants in a world with ID card when they don’t ask in a world with passports? Probably not. Will ID cards actually tackle this problem? It seems unlikely. In practice, the problem is already being dealt with. A local Indian takeaway near me was recently raided and closed when the owners were found to be employing illegal immigrants – it closed because the owner could not afford the fines imposed upon him for failing to make the proper checks. So, not only is there a less intrusive way of solving this problem but it’s already being done.
Mr Johnson blamed the Windrush scandal on Theresa May and said of ID cards that, “We pursued the policy not because it was popular but because it was right. While Amber Rudd has had a dreadful week and [is] clearly not in command of her brief the real blame lies with Theresa May. It was her ‘hostile environment’ policy that has led to this crisis and if, for purely political motives, she had not dropped identity cards none of it would have been necessary in the first place.” Would ID cards have prevented the Windrush scandal? As we’ve already discussed, anybody eligible for an ID card would also be eligible for a passport. Many of the Windrush Generation did have passports, which contained proof of their right to remain in the UK. They also had documentation held by the state that proved their entitlement to be here. The problem was that the Home Office had already destroyed their records of that entitlement. As usual, they were told that this was a bad idea by people who knew what they were talking about and, as usual, the government chose to ignore them. So, would ID cards have prevented Windrush? Yes, if the cards had been issued prior to October 2010 when the Home Office destroyed their records, but they weren’t and even Messrs Clarke and Johnson must concede that in their 15 years of power they failed to introduce ID cards while they had the opportunity and while the records still existed.
Is there a more proportionate way of preventing such scandals in future that does not require every man, woman and child to be registered with the state? Yes, don’t destroy documents that you know you still need!
Others have suggested that ID cards would prevent voter fraud. Let’s take a few minutes to think about that. In 2015, there were 51.4 million votes case and just 26 allegations of voting fraud where a voter was alleged to have been impersonated by another person. It’s not a problem, but it could well become one. Could ID cards prevent this? Yes, they could. But then again so could a requirement to produce any form of identification such as a passport, driving licence, utility bill and so on. Measures are already in place to reduce postal voting fraud. It’s worth noting too that in 2015 there were 383 accusations of offences involving political parties’ campaigns versus just 130 complaints of all types of voting fraud – that’s 0.00025% of the ballots cast were called into question. The cost of an ID cards is said to be around the £5bn mark, is that a price worth paying to eliminate 130 accusations of fraud that could easily be tackled, for free, in other ways?
What would an ID card system look like in practice? Messrs Johnson and Clarke envision credit card sized documents with a chip that contains our biometric data, this could be fingerprints, retina scans and DNA. The cards will also have your photograph printed on it along with your personal information. To receive one the government will obviously need to hold all your information on a database along with your current home address, date of birth and other personal information so that it is possible to identify one Alan Johnson from another. First, do you really trust the government to keep that information secure? One leak and what Mr Johnson describes as, “the best way to prove and so protect a citizen’s identity”, suddenly becomes an impossible to correct identity theft.
Secondly, if these cards are to be used to “give everyone confidence that those using our services are fully entitled to do so” then they will have to be issued to everyone and since not everyone will agree to have one they must be compulsory. If they are compulsory, then there must be a criminal sanction for not having an up to date card otherwise there is nothing to prevent people simply refusing to sign up. Suddenly, we are living in a free society in which it is a crime not to register your fingerprints, DNA and retina scans. One where you must keep the government updated on your looks and where you live on pain of criminal conviction. Government could sneak it in by the backdoor by refusing NHS treatment to anybody without an ID card, including British citizens. I’m not sure that’s any less toxic a plan.
Presumably you’d have to carry the card with you at all times otherwise how will police identify the people they stop as being entitled to remain in the UK? If we don’t have to carry them will police officers be empowered to stop people as they do with cars and order them to produce their documents at a police station within seven days? That does raise the issue of if you’re not sure of a person’s identity how can you be sure they’ll bother to produce their documents? So, will there be a power of arrest to allow police to hold somebody until they are satisfied as to their ID and their right to be in the UK?
There is one set of questions politicians should always ask before they enact new legislation and, if they won’t ask, then we should do it for them:
1. Is the problem that has been identified real? In other words, is there actually a problem that needs addressing?
2. Does the proposal solve, or at least minimise, the problem that has been identified?
3. Can the problem me solved, or at least minimised, as well in a way that is less intrusive on innocent law-abiding people?
The proponents of ID cars argue that they will end illegal immigration, prevent voter fraud and protect our health service. ID cards will have very little impact on any of these problems. But, more to the point, there are methods already available to government that are less intrusive, and which can and often are being deployed to solve the problems.