Whatever the question, ID cards aren't the answer
Identity cards are not the answer to any of Britain's security problems, whether they be crime, asylum, immigration or terrorism. This newspaper has always argued that the cost, not only to the Exchequer but also to our liberties, far outweighs any possible benefits.
Tony Blair, however, has been persuaded by the Home Secretary that identity cards might be the answer to the Government's own identity crisis. A tired administration, beset by personal and policy differences, is casting about for a populist issue with which to outflank its opponents.
Opinion polls show that a majority of the public supports ID cards, as long as they are paid for by somebody else. But if people are asked to pay anything like the £35 extra cost of the new biometric passport and ID card, an even bigger majority rejects the whole idea.
So David Blunkett has come up with an ingenious compromise. He proposes to introduce an elaborate ID card scheme, but without making it compulsory in the first phase. A National Identity Register will record biometric details of the population. Thousands of machines will be installed to read the new ID cards, paid for by employers, the NHS and whoever else wants them. Individuals will also have to pay when they apply for new passports or driving licences. Mr Blunkett apparently hopes that people will hardly notice the £3 billion cost, at least as long as the scheme remains voluntary and is phased in over a decade or more.
This attempt to introduce ID cards by stealth is flawed. There are grave doubts about whether the Home Office is up to the task. Not only Mr Blunkett's opponents, but even his former minister of state, Barbara Roche, are predicting a bureaucratic, technological and financial disaster.
There are also doubts about whether ID cards would actually help the police and security services, even though they have been (improperly) enlisted by Mr Blunkett to bolster his case. Such practical objections were raised by Jack Straw and Gordon Brown in Cabinet.
As a result, the proposal has been watered down and is now pointless. What is the point of inserting a "draft Bill" into the Queen's Speech? What is the point of an ID card that is not compulsory? If America and the European Union are requiring biometric passports, what is the point of confusing that technical problem with the highly political issue of ID cards? Why should a government that has hitherto ignored civil liberties now respect them in the case of ID cards?
Mr Blunkett does have one trump card, which he played yesterday with aplomb against his new shadow, David Davis, in the Commons. When home secretary, the new Leader of the Opposition supported ID cards. Where does Michael Howard stand on this issue now? Until he tells us, it will be hard for Mr Davis to speak for the Conservatives - or for the country.
Millions to get ID cards within 3 years
The Home Secretary has taken a first step to what he hopes will be chips for everyone
MILLIONS of people will be issued with identity cards within three years under David Blunkett's plans for a national scheme announced yesterday. The first compelled to have a card - from 2006 - will be the country's 4.6 million foreign citizens.
A year later British citizens renewing or applying for a passport will be issued with a travel document that could be used as an identity card. They will have to undergo fingerprint and iris scans at post offices or register offices before being issued with a new passport or driving licence.
The passport will cost £77 and will include biometric features such as an iris or fingerprints, which could be checked against a database containing details of all citizens. The driving licence with biometrics will cost £73.
A person who has neither a driving licence nor a passport would be able to apply for a plain identity card costing £35 for ten years. People aged 16 would get the card free and there would be reduced rates of £10 for those on low incomes. Individuals would also be able to pay by instalments.
The Home Office estimates that by 2013 almost 80 per cent of the population would possess either a passport or driving licence containing biometric details, stored on a microchip. Parliament will then be asked whether to make having a card compulsory for all. Mr Blunkett, the Home Secretary, made clear yesterday that he is in favour of that, though people would not have to carry it at all times. He said: "The full benefits cannot be achieved without compulsion."
Ministers were unable to pinpoint the cost of buying and installing machines to "read" the card data. Mr Blunkett said that once the system was in place, there would be different grades of authentication.
At the lowest level, going for a job interview could require a simple visual check that the face matched the picture on the card, he said. Taking up a new job would require the card to be checked against the national database to authenticate the biometric data. Other examples requiring cards to be cross-referred against the database would include making a new benefit claim or register- ing with a doctor.
Passport cards might have to be renewed every five years, as that is when the chip would need replacing.
Yesterday's Home Office document outlined steps which, if implemented, would lead to a voluntary identity card scheme being in place by 2013. Under the proposals, Mr Blunkett will publish a draft Bill in January that will set out plans for a national identity register containing everyone's details. The Bill will outline what should be on the database - name, address, age and sex. It is not expected to include marital status or health records.
Passports that include biometrics on a chip will start to be issued from about 2006-07. The move for biometrics to be included in travel documents is being driven partly by international agreements to make passports more secure. The Home Office has yet to decide what biometrics should be included in the chip. Most chips now can contain only two fingerprints, but the bigger the chip, the more it costs. Mr Blunkett estimated start-up costs at £180 million over the first three years. But the Home Office was unable to provide costings for those firms and other state agencies that would need readers to check cards if the scheme is made compulsory.
Under yesterday's proposals the police and other organisations would not have "routine" access to data stored on the National Identity Register, but the Home Office said that there were strong arguments for allowing such access to help in the fight against serious crime and terrorism. Police will not have the power to stop someone and demand to see their card, though it is likely that it would have to be produced at a police station if required.
David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, called the idea "the latest headline-grabbing initiative to cover splits in the Government. It won't stop terrorists, catch fraudsters or deter illegal immigrants, yet it will cost the taxpayers billions."
Questions were raised last night about the scheme's feasibility. The police said that it would be of limited benefit in tackling illegal working and illegal immigration and in reducing crime.
The watchdog group Privacy International called the proposals "mathematically and technologically" impossible to achieve. Intellect, the IT industry's trade association, has told the Home Office that it is unrealistic to develop a national population register in the short or medium term.
Compulsory ID cards by back door
By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor
Compulsory identity cards could be introduced within four years in a back-door scheme outlined yesterday by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.
From 2007, people renewing passports would be issued with an ID card and would have to pay £77 at current prices. At present, passports cost £42.
Identity cards may also be combined with driving licences at a cost of £73 instead of £38.
The cards on their own would cost £35, but 16-year-olds would receive them free. The elderly and people on low incomes would pay £10.
The charge would cover the cost of biometric identifiers, such as iris prints, fingerprints or facial recognition, taken from everyone wanting to travel abroad or to drive.
More than 40 million Britons have a passport and about 35 million hold a driving licence. As each comes up for renewal the personal details would be entered on a national identity register and the new document combined with an ID card.
The £3 billion scheme would also cover 4.5 million foreign nationals resident in Britain.
Once about 80 per cent of the population has the cards, a decision would be taken making it compulsory to produce the document to access public services such as the NHS, or to get a job or claim benefits.
Mr Blunkett said this process could take five years. That means Britain would have a fully compulsory national identity system in place early in the next decade - a plan denounced by civil liberties campaigners last night as "ID cards by stealth".
Simon Davies, of Privacy International, said technology on the scale required was "not even on the horizon". Mr Blunkett was "living a fantasy" if he thought a foolproof database could be created for 60 million people in that time.
However, the Home Secretary's Commons statement confirmed his intention to introduce a compulsory scheme through the back door after the front entrance appeared to have been blocked by Cabinet colleagues.
He ran into opposition from ministers, including Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who is against the principle, and Gordon Brown, who is concerned about the costs.
At a Cabinet committee meeting last week, Mr Blunkett came under pressure from the Chancellor to justify his plans. But he said the full Cabinet had approved the eventual introduction of compulsory ID cards as long as it proved technically practical.
He could still be knocked back if the Cabinet refuses to support full legislation. Mr Blunkett has only a commitment to a draft Bill, which will set out the proposals in detail but will have no force in law.
However, he is determined to introduce legislation in this parliament to set up the database on which the personal details of every citizen will eventually be entered.
Mr Blunkett said the Americans and other EU countries would soon insist that all travel documents contained biometric identifiers and Britain could not be left as "the soft touch".
He said crime, fraud, terrorism and illegal immigration would be curbed by a national ID scheme. Critics, however, say it will do nothing to prevent any of these, will be open to forgery and represents an unjustifiable curtailment of civil liberties.
The cost to the taxpayer for setting up the database would be almost £200 million.
"No one has anything to fear from being correctly identified but everything to fear from their identity being stolen or misused," Mr Blunkett said.
He claimed there was widespread support among the public and state agencies - including MI5, which wanted a better system to combat terrorism. Yet a Home Office consultation exercise indicated that enthusiasm was muted.
The police said the absence of any requirement to produce the card on demand would make it of limited use in fighting crime or illegal working and immigration.
However, Mr Blunkett said the time would come when the widespread availability of scanning machines would enable the police and other agencies to confirm an iris scan with the database.
David Davis, the new shadow home secretary, said the proposed scheme would do nothing to stop terrorists, fraudsters or illegal immigrants. While he did not oppose an ID scheme that was effective, this was a "fudge" that would cost the taxpayer dear.
There was also some Labour dissent. Barbara Roche, a former Home Office minister, said: "There is a real issue of civil liberties and I am not convinced that the cost of an exercise on this scale would be a valuable weapon in the fight against crime and terrorism."
Mark Littlewood, the spokesman for Liberty, the civil liberties group, said: "We need to guard against ID cards being introduced by stealth. The Government should think very carefully before spending billions of pounds on a scheme that could ignite public outrage."
Tony Blair said: "It is important to realise that we live in a quite different world today. There is a real security threat."