Select Committee on Home Affairs Fourth Report



In this report we consider the Government's proposals for an identity cards scheme and the draft Identity Cards Bill.

The report provides a brief history of UK identity cards.

We outline international developments in identity documents and the experience of a number of countries inside and outside Europe. International experience clearly indicates that identity cards and population registers operate with public support and without significant problems in the rest of Europe. However, given the variety in social, political and legal culture and history, it cannot be assumed that any given approach will work in this country, nor is there any significant international experience to draw on for the use of biometrics on the scale proposed. We outline the implications of the Government's decision to use passports and driving licences for the design and use of a UK identity card system.

We consider the objections of principle raised to identity card schemes. We conclude that objections of principle should not be lightly dismissed and that the Government's proposed scheme would represent a significant change in the relationship between state and individual in this country. But we do not believe that identity cards should be rejected on constitutional grounds alone: the test should be whether the costs are proportionate to the benefits of an ID card system.

We examine evidence that the proposals would not work or would be unacceptably risky. The proposed scheme is unprecedentedly large and complex and will handle sensitive personal data and we conclude that measures to ensure its integrity must be built into all aspects of its development. We express concern about the Government's lack of clarity about the scheme's scope and practical operation, and the current procurement process.

We set out the aims of the scheme given by the Government and assess how the scheme might contribute to the stated aims. We note that the Government's stated aims have changed over time and indicate where further clarity is still required.

We conclude that ID cards can make a significant contribution to tackling illegal working, but only when accompanied by wider enforcement measures. ID cards could make a contribution to reducing illegal immigration, but only if the scheme is properly enforced and complemented by action on access to public services.

We conclude that ID cards would make a real and important contribution to fighting organised crime and terrorism by disrupting the use of multiple identities, identity fraud and related activities like money-laundering. We note the support for an ID card scheme from law enforcement agencies. We conclude that the full benefits would come with a compulsory scheme.

An identity card scheme would help combat identity fraud, but we note the need for appropriate checks on the card and on biometrics. Government should clarify how and when it expects the card to be checked.

ID cards would make it easier to establish entitlement to public services, but action should be taken now to ensure that measures to check identity are developed across public services. The Government should review entitlements to all public services. We express concern that there may be up to four different systems for checking entitlement in different parts of the United Kingdom.

The scheme would improve access to public services to an extent, but in the absence of coherent proposals for improving access to a wider range of services and information, citizens may still have to carry a wide range of cards.

We conclude that among the issues common to the areas in which the Government expects identity cards to make a contribution are the level and nature of checks required and how the operation of services needs to be changed to take advantage of cards. In most cases cards will only be fully effective if complementary action is taken. More could be done now to check identities and there is a danger that action will be delayed until identity cards are introduced.

We note strong public support for the principle of identity cards, but little enthusiasm for paying fees at the level suggested. We criticise the use of the term 'voluntary' to describe the first phase of the scheme, but believe that an incremental approach to the introduction of cards is justified. We stress the importance of ensuring that the proposals do not impose new disadvantages on vulnerable groups and minorities.

We consider the design and planned operation of the scheme. It will be important to establish the right technical and managerial structure from the outset. We are concerned that the Government's approach has not ensured adequate technical debate and public scrutiny.

A balance must be struck between protecting individuals from unnecessary access to information and ensuring that users of the database have the information they need. We point to the implications of, for example, a national fingerprint register, and conclude that Parliament should be to able oversee and prevent 'function creep' in the use of the National Identity Register.

The Government should clarify the operational reasons for requiring addresses on the register, given the significant administrative consequences of doing so. If addresses are included, it should be a legal requirement for landlords to register their tenants. The Government should also clarify the purpose of the number assigned to each individual on the register and its relation to other identifying numbers used by the state

The security and reliability of biometrics are central to the Government's proposals. No comparable system of this size exists. There should be exhaustive testing of the biometrics chosen and the results assessed by independent experts, perhaps led by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.

There is a significant overlap between the General Register Office's proposal for a UK population register—the Citizen Information Project—and the proposed identity cards database. We believe it would be better to improve the quality of existing registers and to draw up common standards for register management. We are concerned by the proliferation of large-scale databases and card systems. Co-ordinated action should be undertaken at the highest levels of the Civil Service. There should not be a central database holding all individual information but the identity card should enable access to all Government databases.

More study is needed of the enrolment and registration processes. The Home Office is taking decisions about the nature of the card without external assessment or public debate. We express deep concern about the lack of information from the Government about the number, type and cost of card readers and infrastructure. Estimates should be published of the number of readers required by government departments and other organisations. We support the issue of multiple identity cards to an individual where there is a legitimate need.

The Home Office's public costings have not changed in two years. We have seen, on a confidential basis, details of the assumptions on which these are based. We are not convinced that the level of confidentiality is justified and believe that cost information is an essential element in determining value for money. The least robust cost estimates appear to relate to the assumptions with the greatest cost-sensitivity. The failure to publish a Regulatory Impact Assessment significantly weakens pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation. Commercial sensitivity is not an excuse to avoid publishing a full Assessment with the Bill.

We believe it is possible to deliver the project on time, to specification and to cost. But the closed nature of the procurement process should be replaced by a more open procurement policy, allowing expert scrutiny.

We believe that an identity card scheme could make a significant contribution to achieving the aims set out for it by the Government particularly tackling crime and terrorism. In principle an identity card scheme could also play a useful role in improving the co-ordination of and the citizen's access to public services, although the Government has not yet put forward clear proposals to do so. We believe that the Government has made a convincing case for proceeding with the introduction of identity cards.

However, the introduction of identity cards carries clear risks, both for individuals and for the successful implementation of the scheme. We are concerned by the lack of clarity and definition on key elements of the scheme and its future operation and by the lack of openness in the procurement process. The lack of clarity and openness increase the risks of the project substantially. This is not justified and must be addressed if the scheme is to enjoy public confidence and to work and achieve its aims in practice.

Our consideration of the draft Bill was not as detailed as we would have wanted. But we conclude that it gives the Government powers to register a wide range of information not obviously related to establishing identity and allows wider access to the database than is justified by the fight against organised crime and terrorism. It is unacceptable to leave to secondary legislation questions over the degree of access to the database, especially since the purposes of the Bill need to be made less broad. We believe that the move to the compulsory stage should be subject to primary legislation and that the powers of the proposed National Identity Scheme Commissioner should be strengthened and extended. We also comment on a number of detailed points in the draft Bill.

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Prepared 30 July 2004