ID card go-ahead

Rachael Marsh reports on the coming of ID cards to the UK

Last Monday the Government secured backing from the House of Commons for its controversial Identity Cards Bill, winning the vote on key House of Lords amendments with a majority of 31. Central to the Lords’ objections was the issue of compulsory registration, which the Government has no manifesto commitment to. Monday’s vote means that all those applying for new passports after 2008 will automatically be registered on the database, a move seen by many as covert compulsory introduction. The Bill now returns to the Lords, who must decide whether to insist on their proposed amendments. If not, the first provisions of the legislation will begin to be implemented in April, when biometric data will be included on certain renewed passports.

The Identity Cards Bill introduces a number of new initiatives. Not only the physical card itself, with accompanying iris scan and fingerprint data, but also the most debated provision – the National Identity Database. According to the current legislation, this database will record over fifty pieces of information on each person. The legislation also identifies specific agencies and individuals that will be able to gain access to the information held. Neither the extent of the information nor the eligible agencies are fixed, however. The number of agencies at least is likely to increase in light of proposed EU legislation that will ensure all European security services share information.

The Identity Cards Bill is a manifesto pledge by the Government and was proposed to counter three key issues: terrorism, identity theft and benefit fraud. Proponents of the Bill state that the biometric data will ensure that individuals can be easily and certainly identified, while the database will mean that a detailed record of a person’s activities can be made in order that likely suspects can be monitored. Moreover, the biometric data will make identity fraud more difficult.

There is a vocal body of opposition to the Bill, however. It ranges in scope from a number of Labour backbenchers, to the body of security experts at the LSE. These experts, working in conjunction with nearly 100 industry experts, produced a report in March 2005 criticising the government’s proposal. Opponents of the Bill suggest that existing databases elsewhere have increased identity theft, not least because once the system is hacked an identity can be stolen comprehensively. Moreover, the Home Secretary indicated that the July bombings would not have been prevented by ID cards.

While the Government is strongly in favour of ID cards, the Conservatives have changed their position over the course of the debate, coming down in the most recent vote against them. This stance seems to reflect public opinion, although different polls return different results. The most recent YouGov poll found 66% against the Government’s current position, although the Government claims majority public support.

The vote on Monday defeated a Lords’ amendment that the Government produce a report on cost prior to implementation, instead supporting a six-monthly report to Parliament. While public opinion seems to be in support of ID cards in principle, there is significant public opposition on the grounds of cost, which the Government has steadily increased from the initial £30 to £93 when linked with passport renewal. Estimates vary, however, the LSE report suggesting this was more likely to be in the region of £300. The overall cost of implementation is also much disputed, with estimates ranging from the Government’s £6 million, to the LSE’s £10 billion. A number of opinion polls show that public support drops as the estimates increase. The Government itself has refused to identify its predicted set up costs, citing commercial sensitivity.

The difficulties the Government has had in passing the Identity Cards Bill comes amid a number of signs that its support is waning, even among its own MPs. While the Government has managed to get the Bill this far, it has been significantly amended, and has only been achieved after a long battle with both the Lords and its own backbenchers. Returning to the second chamber, the Government’s manifesto commitment to a voluntary registration scheme must once again be defended by the unelected house.

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