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FactCheck: why do we need ID cards?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 06 March 2008

FactCheck runs the rule over the ways the government has sold its controversial scheme.

The claim

"The benefits [of the ID cards scheme] are clear."
Jacqui Smith, home secretary, 6 March 2008

The background

A dangerous sign of a police state or a vital safeguard in the modern, high-tech age? Identity cards have divided opinion and bubbled on the political agenda since Labour floated the idea of a national "entitlement card" in 2002.

Part of the government's mission has been to persuade voters of the reasons why they need the cards - which the Tories and Lib Dems oppose.

Today, the home secretary Jacqui Smith laid out concrete plans to get a national identity register up and running - although ruled out bringing in universal, compulsory cards during this parliament.

The scheme involves compulsory cards for foreign workers and students - to make it easier for "immigration and law enforcement officers" to monitor abuse of the system - and for airport staff, to help improve security.

Voluntary cards would also be available to young people, which will do anything from make it easier to apply for a student loan or bank account to providing proof of age.

So, a mixture of security and convenience; but does Smith's announcement tally with the reasons we've been given over the years?

The analysis

Back to the beginning.

In July 2002, the government's original consultation document asked whether cards would help with eight different factors, including providing better services, identity fraud, voting and emergency medical information.

When announcing the national scheme in 2003, then home secretary David Blunkett reeled off a litany, focusing on "the crime and serious issues facing the UK". In particular, he said it would be helpful against illegal working, immigration abuse, ID fraud, terrorism and organised crime.

In November 2003, however, when Blunkett introduced the bill in parliament, he focused on the new ways in which biometrics could help the government deal with the "growing threats to the security and prosperity of Britain from identity theft, fraud, and illegal migration."

The government's paper he introduced argued for the cards on the grounds of fighting illegal immigration and illegal working, disrupting terrorists, combating ID fraud and money laundering as well as preventing the likes of health tourism.

No mention was made of terrorism in the original consultation: this original "entitlement card" had a closer link to public services. Why the change from an entitlement card?

According to evidence Blunkett gave to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the consultation showed people preferred the term ID card to entitlement card, and that it "should give a clearer picture that it encompasses tackling terrorism and organised crime". This would, he said, seem more honest of the government.

Does Smith's announcement tally with the reasons we've been given over the years?

Alarm bells started to ring: the home affairs select committee pointed out that the "changing aims of the scheme do not give total confidence that the government has arrived at a complete set of clear and settled aims for the card" and pointed out that many of the elements of the design and operational use of the card depending greatly on the "precise purpose for which it is designed".

What other purposes were sold to the public?

Then home secretary Charles Clarke put the case during a crucial debate on the ID cards bill in November 2005.

He started off with the benefits to the individual: it would be easier for people to open bank accounts, or travel internationally, as well as reducing the risk of ID theft.

The benefits to society, he said, would include reducing serious and organised crime and people trafficking, money laundering and drug dealing; reducing illegal migration and benefit fraud - plus reducing the risk of terrorism.

The relationship between the cards and terrorism has been hotly disputed by opponents to the scheme - but it's something Tony Blair often touched upon.

In his monthly press conference in April 2004, he brushed aside plans to postpone compulsory ID cards for a decade, flagging up the importance of a national identity register following the discovery of a suspected British Islamic terror network.

"I think that we will need to readjust our terrorism laws still further, I think that the whole issue of identity cards that a few years ago were not on anyone's agenda are very much on the political agenda here, probably more quickly even than we anticipated."

More hard-hitting words from Blair's monthly press conference in August 2006, when he said that ID cards were "major, major issue for us and will be a major plank of the Labour Party's manifesto at the next election, and that is for a very simple reason, if people want to track illegal migration and organised crime in this country you have got to have identity cards".

In February 2007, he emailed more than 27,000 who had signed a petition calling for ID cards to be scrapped as they would not prevent terrorism or crime, and would be yet another tax.

Blair kicked off his response by saying that, although ID cards will not prevent all terrorist outrages, they would have an important role to play in making our borders more secure, countering fraud, and tackling international crime and terrorism.

The verdict

The national identity database is a wide-ranging scheme and so it's not entirely surprising that the finer points of its operation have changed over time.

But the variety of claims attributed to the project - ranging from tackling terror and crime, to stopping health tourism and identity fraud - make it harder to pinpoint exactly how effective the scheme will be.

Smith's emphasis today on how much more convenient it would be for young people to have one piece of identity to flash at banks isn't an entirely new idea - the thinking behind it has been knocking about since 2002.

But this part of the proposal is a far cry from some of the harder-hitting crime and terrorism declarations that came out under Tony Blair.

The sources

National identity scheme delivery plan published, 6 March 2008
Home Secretary sets out next steps on ID cards
Orders of the Day: Identity Cards Bill
We need ID cards to secure our borders and ease modern life, Telegraph
PM's monthly press conference, 3 August 2006
Home Affairs Committee, Identity Cards, Fourth Report of Session 2003-04

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