Need a job? Get a card - arresting ID pitch to business

Redefining voluntary again...

Analysis It might not be your Big Brother's Database, but the UK ID scheme has certainly mastered doublespeak. Take, for example, the way it will force businesses to joyfully embrace ID card checks - or else.

The Bill's Regulatory Impact Statement tells us that the bill has no provisions "which allow the Government to require business, charities or voluntary bodies to make identity checks using the identity cards scheme." And indeed it doesn't. But David Blunkett gave us a taste of what this really means in his speech to the IPPR last month. Referring to the provisions of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act which require employers to check that potential employees are eligible for employment (i.e. not illegal immigrants), he noted that "clause 8 has been very difficult to implement because employers quite rightly say that they are not an immigration service and they can’t easily ascertain whether someone is legally in the country without great difficulty."

Under the Act it is a criminal offence for an employer to fail to make an adequate check, but this particular provision is a difficult one to bring in and to enforce, because employers and their organisations could reasonably protest about cost and about not being an immigration service, and because if the Home Office did prosecute then they'd most likely fail to get a conviction because the employer could claim to have seen a document that looked genuine, and how the blazes were they to know? Well, hello employers, now you are an immigration service.

Blunkett continued: "The verification process under ID cards would remove that excuse completely and people would know who was entitled to be here and open to pay taxes and NI." So once the scheme exists there's no reason for the Home Office not to enforce clause 8, and employers are going to find using the ID scheme pretty compelling - or else.

The Impact Statement suggests the card will be beneficial to employers because it will reduce the cost of compliance with the 1996 Act, and therefore it can be expected that employers will want to use the scheme "even in advance of any explicit requirement to use the scheme." Which does rather sound like 'we're not making you use it in the Act, but just not yet.' Note that the extra costs (large) that employers will be saving by using the ID scheme are costs that have been imposed by the Government in turning them into an immigration service under the 1996 Act. As an aside you should also note that recent regulation of employment agencies has imposed a broader requirement for them to check the identities of job applicants - so they're a census bureau as well as an immigration service.

Employers don't have to check via the ID scheme, and under the Act it will actually be illegal to insist on such a check prior to cards becoming compulsory, but the scheme would "help to enforce the law against unscrupulous employers who would no longer have a defence in claiming they examined an unfamiliar document which appeared genuine to them. And: "...the Government expects that legitimate employers would want to encourage their employees to provide verifiable proof of identity when taking up a job... The scheme allows for records of on-line verification checks to be held, so establishing whether an employer has complied with the law will be more straightforward."

Now, that one's very cute indeed. The Home Office is determined that the ID scheme operates via checks to the National Identity Register, rather than simply as a photo ID upgrade that can be checked locally, the main reason for this being that widespread online checking will generate a nationwide network of ID checks that track back to the Home Office. Here it is pointing out that using an online check will protect the employer because the NIR will have an audit trail proving that the check was made, whereas if the employer just looked at the card, we'd only have their word for that, wouldn't we? So we'll just rub it in: " Only an on-line check would give an employer the assurance that a record of the check would be held on the National Identity Register and would therefore provide a defence against prosecution."

Clearly it's going to be a lot safer to embrace the ID scheme sooner rather than later, but there's one snag here. It will, as the Act specifies, be illegal for an employer to insist on an ID card as proof of identity, so if the applicant insists on using something else then the employer would have to accept it, right? But as not using the ID card would be more expensive and riskier for the employer, one would expect employers to be less likely to give the applicant a job. Particularly if they had a funny foreign-sounding name. And as anybody checking ID will rightly be wary of asking "only certain groups for proof of identity for fear of being accused of discrimination", from the employer's point of view the sooner they can get all applicants to submit an ID card for checking, the better.

The Government hasn't yet decided on whether or not to charge employers for employee checks against the register. It observes that charging individual citizens for compulsory notifications such as address changes "might be counter-productive" (indeed - but what do they mean "might"?), and one could speculate that charging employers might be similarly so. Once however it's widely used by employers in order to avoid prosecution, then they can be argued to be saving the costs they'd otherwise incur for checking ID (via the 1996 Act requirement), and as they'll be using the ID scheme quite a lot already, they'll also then be able to save money by using it more generally, "simplifying the recording of employee data". They can therefore give the money they've thus 'saved' to the Government when the fees are introduced.

Most employers may wonder why they're being put through these hoops, and forced to spend all this money, and then save a bit of it, on voluntarily supporting the ID card scheme. With justification. The Impact Statement identifies the problem of illegal working as occurring "in sectors where principally casual, low-skilled jobs prevail e.g. construction, textiles/clothing, hotel & catering, household services/cleaning, agriculture and the sex industry." These industries aren't major concentrations of Register readership (we don't think so, anyway), and they're not likely to be busting guts to institute ID checks and start paying national insurance contributions either.

Not voluntarily, so this is how it works. At the moment people operating in these areas are subject to sporadic raids by the Immigration and Nationalities Directorate, which unlike the police already has powers to check ID. These raids frequently net illegal immigrants, overstayers etc, but because of the current difficulties with the 1996 Act it's difficult to prosecute the employers. But an employer caught repeatedly when there is "no excuse" will surely have to start checking, meaning that the Government feels it will be able to make a major impact on casual labour and illegal immigrants in these industries (at the expense of all the other industries).

Other sectors are likely to face similarly persuasive efforts to get them to 'volunteer' themselves into the scheme. Much of the public sector will have little choice but to volunteer, and although the banks and credit card companies are unlikely to want to supplant their own security with the ID card (aside from using it to fulfill current legal identity requirements for, say, opening a bank account), it's probably only a matter of time before more sticks arrive. The Home Office says it's investigating incorporation of ID card readers in next generation credit card verification machines, and if it gets these there are a couple of regulatory routes it could take. It could for example insist on ID checks for card transactions over a certain value (as is the law in Spain), and it could make loud outraged noises about false credit card applications and require proof of ID when opening an account. The credit card companies will embrace neither of these voluntarily (it discourages customers), but if the card slots were there and everybody was ordered to do it, well, maybe that'd be different. And then the supermarket checkout could be an immigration service too. ®

Related links:

ID cards will hit business, watchdog warns
Everything you never wanted to know about the UK ID card
Home Office defends ID card plans (again)

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