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Source materials for teaching controversial issus

Identity Cards

This resource provides information and arguments around the issue of Identity Cards. By Andrew Bell.

Arguments

This resource provides detailed information on the issue of ID cards and the main arguments for and against their implementation in the UK.

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Summary of main arguments for and against a national ID cards scheme

For an ID cards scheme

Against an ID cards scheme

Public support
The idea has strong public support: opinion polls, consultations and surveys have consistently shown that a majority of the public favour an ID card scheme.

Public support
Public support is based on a false understanding of ID cards; the public lack knowledge of how the system would work, particularly the National Identity Register database that would hold detailed personal data.

Cost
Overall, the scheme would result in cost savings by reducing money spent on illegal immigration, benefit fraud and terrorism and from having all data needed by different agencies held in one place.
Cost
The system would be hugely expensive to set up and administer and the money would be better spent elsewhere. The cost burden would fall on tax payers and individuals, particularly those who needed to update their information.
Biometrics
The incorporation of biometrics into the new ID cards scheme will increase document security; the UK government is responding to the general global drive towards the use of biometrics for identity.
Biometrics
The security of biometrics is questionable. There are doubts about the accuracy of equipment, the security needed to protect stored biometrics and the margins of error for validating a person's identity from biometrics.
Discrimination
Claims that ID cards would be discriminatory against the UK's ethnic minority groups is alarmist; the government's consultation amongst the UK's ethnic minority groups revealed strong support for an ID card scheme.
Discrimination
Implementation will result in discrimination against minority ethnic groups, gypsies and travellers and those with complex personal information or those whose information changes frequently.
Immigration and illegal working
Essential in tackling the problems of immigration and illegal working. ID cards will make it easier for those seeking work to demonstrate their right to do so and to show that a company employing illegal labour had done so knowingly.
Immigration and illegal working
Would do little to reduce those who work or employ illegally, or reduce illegal immigrants. Employers are already required to check identity documents, but employ illegally anyway. Illegal working is a result of lax government enforcement and relaxed employer attitudes, not lack of ID.
Identity fraud
The scheme will help protect UK citizens against identity fraud and theft which costs the UK economy £1.3 billion per annum. The card will provide a single universal document for proof of age.
Identity fraud
The possession of a stolen or forged identity card could make identity fraud easier than is currently the case if biometrics are not checked. Some individuals could have the protection afforded by false ID removed, e.g. women fleeing domestic violence or those fleeing persecution.
Crime and terrorism
ID cards will help tackle serious and organised crime which depends on the use of false identities, in particular terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering.
Crime and terrorism
ID card schemes in other European countries have not prevented terrorism; ID cards in Spain did not prevent the Madrid railway bombings. Current proposals allow anyone to stay in the UK for up to three months without an ID card so potential terrorists could use short stay documents instead.
Access to public services
The scheme will ensure free public services are accessed easier and only used by those entitled to them.
Access to public services
The scheme could result in a 'two-tier' society leaving anyone without an ID card without access to public services; this could especially impact on vulnerable groups in society.
Civil liberties
Civil liberties and rights will be strengthened by safeguarding people's identity and protecting them from identity theft, terrorism, serious crime and from those who seek to abuse the immigration rules and public services.
Civil liberties
An ID card scheme would fundamentally alter the balance of power between the state and citizen, giving a wide range of agencies access to personal data. This data could grow over time and may not be stored securely or shared appropriately.

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Public opinion

The government claims that the idea of a national ID card has won wide scale public support, based on a consultation process it carried out in 2003 that demonstrated 79% of the public were in favour. A Mori poll carried out in 2004 backed up this claim with 80% in favour and only 11% against.

Critics however are skeptical about the consultation results, suggesting that people were unaware of the true implications of the scheme, such as personal information being held on a National Identity Register database and the many different agencies that will have access to the information. Indeed, the 2004 Mori poll showed that while 94% of people were aware of the ID card scheme, two thirds had "little or no knowledge of how it will work".

Critics also point to the fact that independent opinion polls show that over three million adults are so opposed to ID cards that they say that they would rather break the law than carry one.

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Costs and administration

The government claims that an ID cards scheme could potentially save money by preventing illegal immigration, benefit fraud and terrorism.

Critics argue however that the huge costs involved in introducing and administering an ID cards scheme do not justify any potential merits. The Home Office says that the scheme will cost £3 billion, money that the Freedom Association and others argue would be better spent elsewhere, for example on improved police funding.

There are also concerns over the potential cost to the individual. Human Rights organisation Liberty has expressed concerns about the costs to individuals who change their information frequently. They highlight the impact of a clause in the ID cards bill where there is provision for a fee to be paid for any modification to an entry on the Register.

There is also a proposed system of penalties, with fines up to £1000, for people failing to comply with the new regulations. These include failure to notify authorities about a damaged or defective card; failing to attend an appointment for a biometrics scan or failure to notify the Government of any change in personal circumstances.

The requirement to register change of address could prove particularly problematic for many. In London, for example, 40% of people on average change their address every year.

However, The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) argues that if all data is held in one place, the public would have to inform only one agency of a change in circumstance, thus massively reducing the need for form-filling. The CBI also suggests the existence of a single centralised data bank would help individual businesses by removing their need to hold identity data. They argue the scheme has the potential to remove the need for some businesses to maintain costly backup systems. The Financial Services Authority also support the scheme on financial grounds. They say cards would help the disadvantaged, who find it hard to prove identity and address, to do basic things like set up bank accounts.

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The technology of biometrics

The security and reliability of biometrics – a person's fingerprints, iris image or facial dimensions – are at the heart of the Government's case for ID card proposals. The system proposed would be breaking new ground as no comparable system of this size has yet been introduced anywhere else in the world. The government argues, though, that there is a drive to increase document security with biometrics across the world, so the UK's plans are not unique.

Critics argue that before the system is given final approval, there should be exhaustive testing of the reliability and security of the biometrics chosen, and that the results of those tests should be made available to expert independent scrutiny.

Even the CBI, which is generally supportive of a system of ID cards, has expressed concerns about the use of biometric technology. They have raised concerns about the accuracy of equipment used to record the biometric information, the security needed to protect stored biometrics and the margins of error for validating a person's identity from biometrics.

However, the government argues that any problems encountered with biometrics technology will be addressed through its biometric passport trial currently taking place at four sites in London, Leicester, Newcastle and Glasgow. This is using a cross selection of the population, including people with disabilities, to enable an evaluation of the technology to take place.

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Discrimination

Opponents have argued that black youngsters are disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts and that an ID card will provide police with another excuse to target black minority groups, asking to see their ID cards.

The Law Society, for example, has expressed concerns that the introduction of ID cards could have a disproportionate affect on minority ethnic groups. They also believe the system would discriminate against those with complex personal information, and those whose information changes frequently.

Whilst the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) has concerns over 'stop and search', it does not believe that ID cards would be racially discriminatory: since cards would be issued to all residents in the UK, any requirements to produce the card as proof of identity would apply equally to all cardholders.

The government maintains that the concerns expressed are not felt amongst ethnic minority groups themselves. They say that the idea of an ID card has popular support amongst the UK's ethnic minority groups. The 2004 government consultation revealed that among four ethnic minority groups surveyed there was a clear majority in favour of ID cards. Furthermore, the government points to the fact that support for ID cards among all four groups actually showed an increase since the 2003 consultation.

However, CRE and others have commented that the requirement to register an address will have an adverse impact on Gypsies and Travellers, particularly when a fee may be required to do so and a fine enforced if this duty is not met.

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Immigration and illegal working

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, says he believes ID cards are essential to tackle the problems of immigration and illegal working. The Home Office Select Committee which scrutinised the government's draft ID cards bill, largely agreed. They said that ID cards could make it easier for those seeking work to demonstrate their right to do so, and would make it easier for the police to show that a company employing illegal labour had done so knowingly.

However, critics, such as the Law Society, believe the introduction of identity cards would not significantly reduce those who work or employ illegally, or reduce illegal immigrants. They point to the fact that industries with high levels of illegal labour are already required to check identity documents. Therefore, as long as lax government enforcement and relaxed employers continue, illegal working will go on. The presence of ID cards, they argue, won't prevent people 'disappearing' into the system.

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Identity fraud and theft

The Police argue that ID cards would make their job a lot easier and would protect the law-abiding citizen against fraud, theft and the many other crimes committed by people pretending to be someone they are not.

The CBI also believes that the creation of a single source of identity data would be the best protection against fraud. Identity fraud is estimated to cost the UK economy £1.3 billion per annum. It is a problem which impacts on many other areas. For example, secure verification of identity could help in tackling benefit fraud and fraudulent applications for student loans or grants.

However, the Home Affairs select committee, which scrutinized the government's draft bill, believes there is a danger that in many day-to-day situations the presentation alone of an identity card will be assumed to prove the identity of the holder without the card itself or the biometrics being checked. Therefore the possession of a stolen or forged identity card could actually make identity fraud easier than is currently the case.

Critics are also concerned about the government's plans to make carrying false ID a criminal offence. They argue that women fleeing domestic violence or others fleeing persecution, who might use a new identity to prevent their attackers from tracking them down, might find themselves facing up to 10 years in prison for their 'crime'.

Another argument in favour of ID cards, and of making them compulsory for all over the age of 16, is that it would help solve the problems associated with age-related purchases. The card would provide a single universal document, replacing the existing array of documents currently used to prove age.

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Crime and terrorism

The Home Office argues that ID cards will help tackle the type of serious and organised crime which depends on being able to use false identities: in particular, terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering. They argue that many people involved in serious organised crime and terrorism use fraudulent or multiple identities and that to register one secure identity for all residents would disrupt much of their activity.

Critics though point to the evidence from other European countries that have an ID cards scheme. For example, ID cards in Spain did not prevent the Madrid railway bombings, and fraud and illegal working are problems across Europe, including in countries with an ID cards scheme.

Furthermore, the current proposals mean that anyone in the UK for less than 3 months will not have to have an ID card, so potential terrorists could use short stay documents instead.

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Access to public services

The government argues that ID cards will help people live their everyday lives more easily, giving them a 'watertight' proof of identity for use in daily transactions and travel. The Citizens Advice Bureau agrees that a universal mechanism of identification would be a welcome step forward in improving access to services.

The government also believes that ID cards could stamp out 'health tourism'. It argues that currently there is no way of establishing whether someone arriving at a hospital is eligible for care. The government argues that a sophisticated ID card system would enable authorities to check on a person's entitlement.

The British Medical Association (BMA) believes that doctors may benefit from an ID cards scheme as it could provide a straightforward, un-bureaucratic and easier method of assessing eligibility for NHS care. ID cards could therefore relieve pressure on health care staff the BMA argues.

The Financial Services Authority also supports the scheme claiming that ID cards would help the disadvantaged, who find it hard to prove identity and address, do basic things like set up bank accounts.

Critics though, have pointed to the dangers of creating a 'two-tier' society where anyone without an ID card will be left without access to healthcare. The BMA is worried that a negative affect of ID cards could be the marginalisation and exclusion of vulnerable groups such as the elderly or those with serious mental illness. Such socially excluded groups are, they argue, among the least likely to access public services effectively, and the need to register for and hold an ID card in order to access vital services could operate as an additional disincentive.

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Civil liberties

Opponents believe that an ID card scheme would fundamentally alter the balance of power between the state and citizen. They argue that information on individuals carried on the National Identity Register that would accompany the ID card scheme would grow over time.

The NO2ID campaign is concerned about the security of such data and whether it would be shared appropriately or deployed responsibly; there are fears about hackers being able to break into the system. They and others are also skeptical about the private companies who would run the scheme and those who will be responsible for entering our personal data.

There are also fears that the scheme currently being proposed under the ID cards Bill would allow later additions and changes through secondary legislation. This requires less parliamentary and public scrutiny than primary_legislation and critics argue that the Bill as it stands leaves the opportunity for fundamental changes to be made in the future.

For example it could become compulsory to carry an ID card, something that many supporters are already calling for. The government could later decide it wanted to hold information on an individual's voting record or religious beliefs, information that many would consider a threat to civil liberties and privacy. It could also in future become compulsory to have an identity card for voting and for access to housing, council tax benefit or social services.

The Law Society believes that the draft Bill provides the Government with unnecessary and undesirably wide powers to record, retain, and disseminate personal data. Under the current proposals a range of authorities including Police, Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise, Security Services, Immigration Service and Dept for Work Pensions will have the right to access data. The Law Society has even suggested that the current proposals could breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, the government argues that civil liberties and rights will be strengthened rather than threatened by an ID card. They argue that people's identity will be protected from theft, that they will be guaranteed access to the services to which they are entitled and that communities will be better protected from terrorists, organised criminals and those who seek to abuse the immigration rules and public services.

They also claim that there will be strict privacy safeguards, limiting the disclosure and use of information.
Supporters further suggest that people being able to demonstrate their right to be in the UK should help to promote community cohesion by reducing suspicion.

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Introduction

Arguments

Facts & Figures

Timeline

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References

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