Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

28.  Memorandum submitted by The Law Society


  In 1995 the Home Office issued a consultation paper on the introduction of identity cards. In 1996, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee took evidence and published a report on the Government proposal for an identity card scheme. In that report, the Committee opposed the introduction of a multi-function card containing a microchip and a database of personal information because the technology was not fully developed. It also stated that it posed great difficulties if the cards were lost or stolen, and commented that such a card would have greater risks in respect to privacy and data protection and that there was no support from private sector groups.[40]

  In July 2002, the Home Office published a consultation paper on the introduction of Entitlement Cards. The paper canvassed whether to introduce a voluntary identity card scheme (in which registration and use of the card is entirely at the discretion of the individual) or a universal card scheme (in which all residents over a certain age would be required to register, and the card would be the only way to access certain services).

  The Law Society is not opposed to a voluntary identity card scheme in principle. However, we do have concerns that in practice, a voluntary scheme could become in effect compulsory as more and more organisations and service providers required production of the card to prove identity.

  In our response to the Home Office Consultation, we expressed concerns about the proposals for a universal card scheme. Although the consultation paper expressly stated that it was not consulting on the introduction of a compulsory identity card scheme, in our view such a scheme would effectively become compulsory. Under proposals for a universal scheme, having a card would become a requirement of access to certain State services, in particular non-emergency health care and any State benefits. The fact that under a "universal" scheme people would not be required to produce a card under threat of criminal sanctions does not make it voluntary if it is required to obtain access to services.

  The current proposals by the Home Office are for an identity card scheme which may become compulsory. A move towards compulsory ID cards is a marked shift in the position of the Government, and one which requires full public debate.


  Since the Home Office consulted on the introduction of Entitlement Cards in July 2002, the Government has given a number of different explanations as to why an identity card scheme is necessary.

  The introduction of a national ID card scheme has been heralded as the answer to identity fraud and illegal working; as an essential tool in the Government's fight against crime and illegal immigration; and most recently it has been touted as a means of combating health tourism.[41]

  These explanations have not satisfied informed observers. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas stated ". . . I face a real difficulty knowing what the scheme that is being proposed really amounts to. The consultation paper puts forward a diverse range of purposes ranging from reducing identity fraud to aiding voter registration, from facilitating access to government services to assisting emergency medical treatment. . . The existence of so many potential options makes it impossible to come to any firm conclusion as to whether the benefits would outweigh the risks to privacy, human rights and social values quite apart from the financial cost."[42]

  The Home Office has reported that they have received almost 5,000 responses to the consultation, and that their own poll demonstrates significant support for the card. Home Office Minister, Beverley Hughes, has reported that 5,031 emails about the scheme have been received via the Stand website (a voluntary group seeking to increase democratic involvement in the legislative process). Of these, more than 4,856—over 97 per cent—expressed views opposing an entitlement card scheme, 44 expressed views in favour.[43]

  These statistics suggest that most people are not yet convinced that the Government has made the case for the benefits of a national ID card system. The shift in the Home Office's position and the fact that an identity card scheme will impact every resident in the UK leads us to believe that further consultation with the public is needed.


  The Law Society does not support the Government's proposals for an identity card scheme. In our response to the Home Office consultation, we highlighted concerns about proposals for a universal identity card, in particular:

    —  The effectiveness of the scheme in combating fraud

    —  Potential violations of human rights and civil liberties

    —  Data protection issues

    —  The cost of the scheme to individuals

    —  The practical difficulties of starting and running the scheme

  These concerns have not been allayed.

Effectiveness of the Scheme

  The Law Society does not believe an identity card (whether voluntary, universal or compulsory) will be effective for any of the Government's stated purposes.

If the intention is to combat identity fraud, we believe the scheme will be ineffective.

  The Home Office stated in the consultation paper that a reduction in identity fraud is the main goal of the scheme, but has failed to show that it could achieve this. The Government has failed to show that similar schemes in other counties have helped to reduce identity fraud. Indeed, in the USA, the universal use of Social Security Numbers—a scheme not unlike the one the UK Government is proposing—has led to a huge growth in identity fraud.

  Despite a compulsory identity card scheme, France continues to battle problems such as illegal working, illegal immigration and identity fraud—the very things the Home Office hopes to address with identity cards. If an identity card has not eliminated these challenges in France, what makes the Home Office believe that these problems can be resolved with an identity card scheme in the UK?

  The Home Office consultation notes the importance of utilising more than one form to establish identity stating that "organisations should make a number of checks from different sources"[44]. The consultation also states that "it is highly likely that an entitlement card scheme would become the target of organised criminals who would attempt to produce counterfeit cards. Even if counterfeit cards could be detected by sophisticated checks, many people might still be fooled by them and become victims of crime".[45] The Home Office has admitted the risks of relying on a singe form to prove identity, yet continues to press ahead with this expensive scheme.

  The abolition of identity cards in the UK in the 1950s came after the realisation that they were unreliable in proving identity; that they were easily forged by criminals; and that they strained the relationship between the public and the State. Sophisticated criminals have had little difficulty in forging identification, such as passports. This existing lucrative black market would be exacerbated by the demand for an entitlement card that gives access to a wide range of services, and this could increase identity fraud—and therefore costs—as the Government is forced to update technology and renew cards to beat fraudsters.

If the intention is to tackle illegal working, we believe the proposals will be ineffective.

  Employers who are willing to employ people illegally without National Insurance Cards are likely to continue employing people illegally without identity cards.

  Identity cards would not make it easier for employers to check employees' entitlement to work in the UK, especially if reading the cards required sophisticated equipment. Once forged or improperly obtained cards were in circulation, employers might have to request further ID in order to verify that a card was genuine.

  The card scheme fails to address and remedy the complex procedures for overseas workers—individuals who may be domiciled in the UK but reside in other countries for extended periods of time—and individuals who have time limits attached to their cards but are out of the country.

If the intention is to reduce crime, we believe the scheme would be irrelevant.

  The biggest problem for the police is not in identifying individuals, but rather in linking an individual to a crime. An identity card would add nothing to the existing tools available to the police.

  If the police had access to personal information contained on the central database, the result could be further strain on the public's trust. The Home Office consultation paper quite rightly identifies the fact that if the police were allowed access to this information, it "might cause public unease and lead to a lack of confidence in the overall entitlement card scheme".[46]

If the intention is to eliminate health tourism, we believe the card will be irrelevant.

  The majority of people who are not able to get on to GP lists tend to use hospital accident and emergency centres for primary care. The Government's preliminary proposals prevent anyone seeking accident and emergency treatment from having to produce the card. The burden of deciding whether or not someone is eligible to receive services should not fall upon the shoulders of hospital staff.

Human Rights and Civil Liberties

  Although the scheme currently proposed for an identity card could only become compulsory through a vote in both Houses of Parliament, if the scheme did become compulsory, law enforcement agencies could seek powers to require individuals to produce the card on request. Pressure to allow a range of officials to demand to see the cards would surely follow.

  There is evidence that compulsory cards damage community relations, as certain groups feel they are disproportionately targeted by the authorities—as the Black and Asian communities feel now about the use of stop and search powers.

  Furthermore, the barriers to registering for a card could exacerbate social exclusion. Loss or theft of the card, or administrative failure, could result in services becoming unobtainable to those who most need them. This could also have a negative impact on vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, such as those with complex or frequently-changing personal information; homeless people; people suffering mental illnesses; older people; ethnic minorities; people on low incomes; foreign residents; immigrants and asylum seekers.

  In France, a country with compulsory identity cards, there exists a class of people who do not have identity cards (sans papiers) and who therefore can not access services.

Data Protection

  The Home Office consultation paper fails to outline how issues of data protection will be addressed. The paper outlines how one central register would be most cost efficient, but fails to describe the "stringent safeguards" there will be on personal data. Due to a history of IT blunders, the public will have little faith in a large scale scheme without radical (and expensive) investment in technology which has been tested and demonstrated to be secure before any scheme comes into force.

  It would be crucial that people had confidence that highly personal information would be kept confidential. However, the Government is damaging confidence with statements that indicate information could be made available without consent.[47] The Society fears that there is a real threat that data collected for the scheme could end up being used for other purposes.

  Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has questioned the Government's proposals. "We need greater clarity about the main purposes behind an effectively mandatory entitlement card. How can we be sure that the unique personal number and a central register will never be used to track all our various interactions with the state and others?"[48]

Cost of the Scheme

  It is becoming apparent that the scheme will be extremely costly both to the Government and to individuals. The Government has estimated the following costs for the scheme over a 13 year period:

    —  £1,318 million for plain plastic cards;

    —  £1,640 million for simple smartcards;

    —  £3,145 million for more sophisticated smartcards.

  Even if only the most basic scheme was introduced, spending well over a billion pounds on an initiative with no proven benefits raises concerns. This is money that could perhaps be better spent putting more police officers on the beat, or developing a wider range of other security measures to stop terrorism, identity fraud and other crimes.

  It has been announced that individuals will have to pay £35 for a plain ID card and up to £77 for a passport or identity card with biometric data. How can this new poll tax be justified?

  If the ID card is to become the only required source to prove one's identity, how will the cards will be read; and what equipment will be needed to do so? If a machine is required to read biometric data stored on the card, will all organisations, post offices, GP surgeries etc. be required to have a machine? If so, are the costs of supplying machine readers included in the cost estimates?

Practical Difficulties

  Implementing a nation-wide identity card scheme would not only be extremely costly, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. The practical hurdles, some of which are identified in the consultation paper, are likely to make the scheme unworkable. Benefits would be maximised if the card included biometric information and an updateable chip, but including this technology requires a massive administrative support system to ensure its effective operation.

  It was not long ago that this Government scrapped its predecessors' plans for a benefit payment card to replace insecure Order Books and Giros, claiming it was too difficult to computerise up to 20 million claimants.[49] How does the Home Office see a scheme computerising an estimated 60 million individuals as being readily achievable?

  The Home Office consultation on entitlement cards states that although "allocation of NI numbers to adults has been tightened, there remain some instances where people have been issued with more than one NI number. It is unwise to rely on a number where there are known problems with data quality".[50] If the existing systems have problems of data quality and the issuing of more than one card to individuals, how will the identity card system be any different?

  In a report highlighting the challenges within the passport system[51] the National Audit Office found that:

    —  During 1999 maximum processing times in the Passport Agency's regional offices ranged between 25 and 50 days, compared to the Agency's target of 10 working days.

    —  By June 1999, around 565,000 applications were awaiting processing compared to a [still serious from an ID card point of view] figure of 300,000 the previous year.

  Registering for the new identity cards will have to take place in person so that biometric data can be scanned. We have already highlighted how this may adversely effect vulnerable groups, but it will also have considerable repercussions for the Government. The administrative burden that will be associated with issuing these cards will fall to those issuing driving licenses, passports, separate identity cards, and presumably Britain's consulates around the world, which issue a large portion of visas by post.


  History shows that all types of cards are forgeable. From National Insurance Numbers to passports, each scheme administered has been linked with forgery and a profitable black market; has been riddled with technological problems, and has cost taxpayers a great deal of money. The Government's proposals do not demonstrate that these problems will not recur.

  For the most part, in order to reap the benefits outlined by the Government, identity cards would have to be issued to everyone who was lawfully resident in the UK, and would have to include the highest level of biometric data possible—making the cost prohibitive. There is unlikely to be much public confidence in the Government's ability to deliver a safe and secure system.

  The Law Society seriously doubts whether an identity card scheme would significantly reduce the incidence of identity fraud, or of other crimes. But it would increase the administrative burden on the police and, put a heavy financial burden on government and individuals.

December 2003

40   The Home Affair Committee (1996) Fourth Report Identity Cards Volume I p. xxxiv, 128. Back

41   BBC Politics Show, the Today Programme, BBC Radio 4. Back

42   See the Information Commissioner's response to the Home Office Consultation on Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud (31 January 2003). Back

43   Hansard Reports 17 June Column 153W. It was reported that a further 131 [emails] contained obvious false information, for example a made-up email address or were judged highly likely to be duplicates.  Back

44   Home Office Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud: A Consultation Paper p.30, 3.11. Back

45   Ibid p.30, 3.11. Back

46   Ibid p.37, 3.29. Back

47   Ibid. Back

48   Thomas, Richard (13 February 2003) Press Release Information Commissioner Voices Concerns over Entitlement Cards Back

49   Lilley, Peter (2002) The Observer: ID cards-A Dumb Idea and Dangerous Too. Back

50   Home Office Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud: A Consultation Paper p. 24, 2.31. Back

51   "The Passport Delays of Summer 1999" (NAO, 1999). Back

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