ID cards

Thank you for inviting me today to speak at the Smart Government Forum and to give the Liberal Democrat perspective on ID cards.

The Lib Dems and I are not Luddites and we’re pretty gung ho about modernisation – but not as an end in itself. So, if I and my party are to remove our natural inhibition towards the state having any right to intervene into our lives – then the argument that the greater good is served by the giving up of our individual right to privacy and ownership over information concerning us, has to be won. And it can only be won if what is proposed will work for the greater good – or indeed, in the case of ID cards, work at all.

Never before has a Government been so obsessed – when it can momentarily raise its eyes from its leadership troubles – by the centralisation of power. Never before has a Government sought so much to change the relationship between the individual and the state.

The trend can be evidenced. Civil liberties are being slowly eroded. CCTV has made us the most watched society in the world, the police can hold forever on file the DNA of innocent people charged with no offence, we have detention without charge and now the Government is forcing everybody to have an ID card. The relationship between the individual and the state is being altered: we will all have to prove who we are whether we are doing anything wrong or not.

The result is a real shift from that cornerstone of British democracy, presumption of innocence, to presumption of guilt until proven innocent.

I say this, not as much as a political statement, but as a rationale for why this Government – who philosophically would not be bothered by the principles involved in invading a citizens’ privacy as the Liberal Democrats would – is doing what it is doing. Yet this Government glosses over – indeed is in denial – about the very real dangers of the associated with the security and use of the proposed national database and the very real and pragmatic problems involved in the introduction of a biometric identity card and its inevitable ineffectiveness.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I were steadfast in our opposition to ID cards. Sadly the Conservatives caved in at the last throw of the parliamentary dice and backed the Government in the parliamentary votes that ushered in the Identity Cards Act.

In the end, it was the Liberal Democrats that stood alone in our opposition to this authoritarian legislation.

The result is that identity cards will be compulsory for anyone getting a new or renewed passport after January 1st 2010. Those who apply for passports before January 1st 2010 will have their names and details put on the new national identity register, although they will not be forced to have an ID card. Typically, this Government is unable to tell us from when the latter will apply, as it does not know when the national identity register will be in place.

The only way in which people will be able to opt out of this system after January 1st 2010 is by giving up their right to travel abroad. This is not a right anyone should have to forgo.

Yet it was a Labour’s manifesto ‘promise’ to introduce voluntary ID cards.

During the ID card Commons debate they argued that it is voluntary as to whether one has a passport or not – i.e. there is no compulsion to have one or to travel abroad. “Hey, Mr Border Guard, my Government says passports are voluntary.” Can’t you just see it?

At the Labour party conference in 1995, Tony Blair demanded that ‘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.’

What, then, is our opposition based on? Quite frankly – we are spoilt for choice!

Cost: ID cards will cost a fortune and we will be expected to foot the bill. Their introduction, alongside biometric passports, is estimated by the Home Office to cost £6 billion over ten years. A passport and ID card, even if you don’t want one, will cost £93.These costs will soar further as the current figures do not include the cost of card readers, staff training and biometrics. The current cost estimates are vague and incomplete.

IT track record: this Government hardly has a brilliant track record in introducing large scale IT systems. Systems in the Post Office, Air Traffic Control, Passport Office, Probation Service and the Child Support Agency, among others, have run massively over budget. Does anyone really expect the most ambitious system, for ID cards, to be any different?

Discrimination: ID cards will also lead to discrimination and harassment. As the Government encourage the police to detect illegal immigrants and terrorist suspects, black and Asian people will inevitably be targeted. I have no doubt that there will be a compulsion to carry and present in due course. The damage to community relations will compound an already tinderbox climate post 7/7.

Confidentiality: The introduction of ID cards will allow our personal data to be shared without our consent. Even the tightest security will eventually be breached. ID cards will only hold limited information but there are 52 categories of ‘limited’ information that can and will be held which will build up a pretty comprehensive picture of us and our lives.

How will future governments use this information? No one can tell. This country’s lack of a written constitution means that the Home Secretary is entitled to expand the scope of the register and lower the safeguards on data sharing, which leaves it open to abuse.

The ‘future government’ argument has never been more valid. How can anyone guarantee that ID cards will not be used to spy on its citizens or restrict civil liberties? How can anyone guarantee ID cards won’t eventually be used to monitor individuals or groups or restrict our entitlement to services? This is the thin end of the wedge – no one can predict how the use of ID cards will develop.

Security: How safe will the National Database be. DVLA sells information – there will be commercial pressures. It will ultimately be available to all government departments – will it stop there? No – it will be accessible under the principle of availability to all EU member state law agencies and so on. It will be a target for fraudsters and a gift for those intending harm – legitimised by an ID card. Yet ironically at the same time as saying the national database will be safe, the Government is extraditing to the USA one of my constituents because he hacked in to the USA’s national defence systems. So I rather doubt the Government’s assurances on security and safeguards.

Effectiveness: Perhaps the most salient argument against ID cards is that they will not succeed in any of the areas they claim they will. ID cards will not prevent benefit fraud. They will not halt identity fraud or identity theft. They will not stop illegal working. They will not, as the Government believes, assist in the fight against crime or terrorism.

Some benefit fraud may be prevented by forcing people to show an ID card when claiming benefits. ID cards will, however, have no impact at all on the most common type of benefit fraud – people misrepresenting their circumstances rather than their identity. Countries that have ID cards still have benefit fraud.

Indeed, the value of ID cards as a guarantee of identity and the access they provide to valuable services will make them a target for forgery for criminals and fraudsters. It will usher in a new era of identity fraud and theft. The Government will claim that the technology can’t be forged, but history will prove them wrong. It’s a common, common pattern – new encryption, new security, put it on a device that gets widely distributed, and it gets cracked. In a recent case in Germany, criminals forged an ID card that included biometric data.

By forcing people to show their ID cards in applying for a job in the UK, the Government expect to prevent illegal working. This will not happen. Industries with high levels of illegal labour are already required to check identities but the Home Office does not inspect them. In 2003, there were only two prosecutions for employing an illegal worker. ID cards will not thwart unscrupulous employers or suddenly turn a beleaguered Home Office into a well-oiled machine. Neither will ID cards shore up our porous borders.

Similarly, ID cards will not help fight crime or terrorism. Generally, the police’s problem is not identifying those arrested but catching criminals in the first place. The terrorists responsible for 9/11 and the Madrid bombings all carried valid identity documents.

Knowing someone’s identity is different from knowing how they will behave. No one can seriously tell me that ID cards would have prevented the London bombings. The fight against crime and terrorism needs more police and better police work, not ID cards.

If this Government were realistic about making an impact on crime, fraud, terrorism and illegal immigration it would scrap the preposterous ID card scheme and spend the vast amount of money on something useful.

The Liberal Democrats would. We would fund 10,000 police officers (on top of Labour’s plans) and provide an extra 20,000 community support officers to back them up. We’d equip the police with new technology to tackle crime and cut the hours they spend wrapped in paper and red tape. For example, handheld computers for beat bobbies.

My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I do support the use of biometrics in passports only. It’s a logical aid to identification – when identification is the issue at borders. But the database behind passports would carry only the information on the passport – as it does today – plus the biometric match.

We would establish a National Border Agency, bringing together officers from immigration, the police and customs, whose responsibilities currently overlap. This would combat cross border crime, illegal immigration, terrorism and fraud.

We would cut down on illegal working by actually, shock horror, inspecting employers and bringing prosecutions against those who use illegal labour.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats would use phone-taps and other ‘intercept communications’ as evidence in court against terrorist suspects, making prosecution easier.

Principle: Finally it’s the principle. I have many sorts of cards – but they are purpose driven. I have wanted something – be it a credit card or library club or a driving license and in return I have given the information demanded by the provider. But outside of purpose driven documentation of my choosing – if I have committed no crime then I own the information about myself and no one has a right to access it.

The introduction of ID cards will change British life. The relationship between the individual and the state will be forever altered. It will revolutionise the capacity of the state to monitor the movements and behaviour of each and every one of us. It erodes privacy, and in extremis it will curtail freedom. To cap it all, we will be forced to pay for this dubious privilege.

This Government may propagate the idea that in the ID card we will have an answer to all our problems – but as I have outlined – it will not. Clinging to an idea, a panacea that won’t work is incomprehensible from where I stand, but cling they have and the legislation is now in statute. But I still harbour the expectation that this well-intentioned scheme will fall and fail.

And my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I will continue to fight this illiberal, ill-judged and unworkable system. I hope many of you will support us.