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Everything you never wanted to know about the UK ID card

Name, rank, serial number...


So, what have we got? We have an overall strengthening of the integrity ID documents in the UK, and in the case of the passport this is an important gain, primarily from an immigration point of view, but also in situations where passport would be used to establish ID (e.g. banking). The major gain is to be made simply via the document, and does not hinge on an ability to check with a central database. A local check of biometric against document could strengthen the ID further, but in most cases this shouldn't be necessary - looks like person, probably is person, sure passport isn't forged, pass, person.

ID-related health and benefit fraud are not sufficiently extensive for them to justify a universal rollout of ID cards. The existence of a single, solid database of people in the UK could prove useful in tidying up National Insurance, NHS and tax records, but that single database will not even begin to exist until 2013, and these record systems do not need the strength of ID proposed by the Home Office in order to function. Yes, they need tidying up and weeding, but they could at least as well be tidied up by other means - and the tidying ought to start a bit sooner than in ten years time.

For the security services, the ID scheme is largely an administrative convenience. It will not of itself help catch criminals or terrorists, nor will it help significantly in finding them. As and when the hypothetical ring of steel exists, checking all UK ID as it comes in and out of the country, then the security services will have (theoretically - depends on how good they are at sharing) a record of a suspect with UK ID entering or leaving the country. But if it's someone they seriously suspect they've got that already, check? And they've been known to track them all the way through Spain to Gibraltar, too...

The other agenda

As you were so rightly thinking, we missed one in the summary - immigration. This however fits better as the primary driver of the other agenda, the one that isn't in the draft and the consultation documentation, but that is slowly beginning to be spilled out in interviews and Committee evidence. We don't propose to pass an opinion on who started it, but the public, the Daily Mail, the Government and the Home Office are now whipping each other up into some kind of circular frenzy about immigration. And the buck stops at Blunkett's Home Office.

A brief, but by no means comprehensive, list of Blunkett's headaches here will be useful. He has large numbers of asylum applicants to be processed and supported while they await processing. He has overloaded application systems at embassies throughout the world, overloaded processing systems in the UK, scandals caused by people shorting out the processing systems in order to deal with the backlog. He has asylum seekers whove been rejected and overstayers in the country somewhere, he doesn't know where. He has people applying again and again until they get in (no, he doesn't know how many, otherwise they wouldn't, right?). And he has people-trafficking. This is widely perceived as a huge issue, but actually the numbers are estimated by the police as quite small, the main illegal immigration problem being assisted entry, where a passport is sent out of the country, altered, comes back with the illegal immigrant, and is then sent out once more.

We barely scratch the surface, but you can understand why Blunkett might just be the teensiest bit tetchy. He needs a magic bullet to fix all of this, and the ID card is it. But how does it fix it? We're really better off looking at how he thinks it will fix it.

In recent statements Blunkett has pinned a great deal of hope on his knowing who's coming in, who's going out and who's here. To the Home Affairs Committee on 4 May, for example, he said he would be aware of "who is coming in and out, those who are resident, and those who are engaged in activities around terrorism." Note that he's aware of the latter already, and that this awareness has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of an ID card system - it's a security services surveillance matter. The broader importance is the faith he's putting in a complete and accurate audit of the UK population, and his most pressing motivation for wanting this is immigration.

If for a moment we just pretend he's actually going to get this, we can see how at least some of the immigration headaches get nailed. It doesn't help with the application overload, because we still have to create an ID for new applicants (even the ones we turn down straight away). It should get the lid on multiple applications, because we'll catch the matching biometrics. It should seriously impede assisted entry, provided it turns out the passport can't be altered, and it could have a similar effect on forgeries. Eventually, granted that knowing who's coming in and out actually works, it should reduce the number of people who're in the UK somewhere, but who can't be found and thrown out. They will die off or find some way of legitimising themselves. Blunkett himself concedes that it will be possible to establish a false ID, but then you'll be stuck with it for the rest of your life.

Which would probably fine from the point of view of an illegal immigrant in the UK. And there are all sorts of people who'd find having just the one strong British ID in addition to any others they have quite handy. One could even toy with the notion of Osama bin Laden having one in order to draw disablement benefit while he's holed up in some Afghan cave. He'd only do it the once and then he'd be stuck with it though, so that's OK by David.

Blunkett's dream of 100 per cent knowledge of what's in the UK is however marred by exceptions. He can't insist on 100 per cent before compulsion comes in, and once it does arrive, the pool will continue to be muddied by people coming in on short stays (no ID registration required) then vanishing. The 'unpeople' who're already here aren't likely to turn themselves in, and someone with no legitimate ID is clearly not someone who's going to arrive at the police station to show ID within seven days. So how do you nick them?

Well, you can do it via mechanisms the Home Office has specifically ruled out - making carrying ID compulsory, ethnically targeted stop and searches and the like, but we've ruled all that out, haven't we? So what it hinges on is the card really becoming the "key" to life in the UK, used "in daily transactions and travel." The more widespread its use, the more checkpoints there will be, and the fewer aspects of daily life that will be available to you without your using the card. It is currently possible to exist in the UK without a valid identity, but the more checkpoints there are, the narrower the options of the ID-less will be. So it's not just desirable from the Home Office's point of view that the British public love and use the card, it's absolutely vital. If they don't the whole thing doesn't work.

So do you want this? It's a system that won't achieve most of its objectives, and those it will achieve will be achieved via massive overdesign (secure passport system? Here, take this networked database and personal information register to go with it). You get a personal ID card you don't need. You pay vastly more than you need to for the ID documents you do need. It only addresses the immigration problem (most of the British public sees immigration as a problem) if you pretend to love it and use it all the time, in all sorts of areas where you don't need it and it's inappropriate. And you get the free centralised database of your personal information anyway, providing a locus for any number of government and private databases of your personal information. Don't worry you've nothing to hide - even from your bank, other banks, loan sharks and double glazing salespeople, right?

It costs £3.1bn for all this cool stuff. At least. Go and tell the Home Office how much you support it, you've got until the 20 July, and you'll find a link to the consultation document below. If you happen to agree with any of this article, paraphrase it, don't just copy it. If you do they'll just mark you down as a petition signer and disenfranchise you, like they did with the Stand objectors in the previous "consultation."

Consultation input should be sent to Robin Woodland, Legislation Consultant, Identity Cards Programme, Home Office, 3rd Floor, Allington Towers, 19 Allington Street, Londob SW1E 5EB. They can be faxed to +44 (0)20 7035 5386 or emailed to, with 'consultation response' in the subject line. All of this information is prominently displayed on page 42 of the consultation document. ®

Related stories:

Draft bill and consultation
Glitches in ID card kit frustrate Blunkett's pod people
UK public wants ID cards, and thinks we'll screw up the IT
Fingerprints as ID - good, bad, ugly?
ID cards: a guide for technically-challenged PMs

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