Several Lords have urged the government to reconsider the introduction of an identity card to improve security, reduce identity fraud and keep pace with technology.
Leading a debate in the House of Lords, Labour’s Lord Campbell-Savours said there was a need for a universal identity assurance scheme for everyone legally resident in the UK.
He said the coalition’s destruction in 2011 of the programme started by Labour in 2002 had left the UK “exposed to an explosion in identity fraud and crime”.
Lord Campbell-Savours said that, if Germany can build a secure national identity system in which its citizens have confidence, the UK should be able to do the same.
National identity cards backed by sophisticated biometrics and strong authentication would help combat fraud that costs the UK an estimated £30bn a year, he said.
In addition, he said an ID card could be used to establish entitlement to services, provide security assurance and to check identity more generally.
Lord Campbell-Savours said an ID card would also help government address that fact that many people live outside or on the margins of the tax system, costing the country billions.
“A national identity card with relevant biometric data would be a powerful tool in ensuring that people pay the state for the services they receive,” he said.
Lord Campbell-Savours said the consultation originally carried out by the Labour government recorded a majority in favour of national identity cards. “Today, the cry for reform is greater than ever, and I want this whole debate reopened,” he said.
Highlighting the role identity cards could play in improving national security, former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Blair said nobody in the police or security services sees a need for people compulsorily to carry identity papers in the street. “However, in the case of serious crime and terrorism, the police need, as soon as possible, to establish identity.
“I never understood why, as far back as the 2005 general election, the Conservative Party resisted the idea of ID cards. After Paris, after Istanbul, after Jakarta, I do not think the public will understand why the Conservative Party is still resisting the idea. It is an idea whose time has come,” he said.
Conservative Lord Marlesford said: “What is urgently needed in the UK is the abolition—the abandonment—of the chaotic multiplicity of identity numbers and the introduction of a single identity number.”
Several other peers highlighted other benefits of the introduction of an ID card to the UK, including identity assurance in a variety of contexts and cost savings through continuity across all government departments and services.
ID database ‘magnet for spies’
But cross-bench Lord Errol said linking up all the databases would be “a magnet for the crooks and spies”.
“The first thing I would do as a foreign agency would be to have someone in there to get the details so that I could put in implants, create identities and so on,” he said, providing a false sense of security.
Labour’s Lord Maxton, however, was one of the few that highlighted the importance of keeping pace with technological developments. He said the government ought to consider going beyond an ID card, to enable the introduction of a universal smart card.
He said a single card would free citizens from having to carry several forms of identity as well as enabling them to prove their identity online and conduct financial transactions.
“That is the world we live in. The technology is already there,” he said, adding that, if the UK government does not keep pace with technology, “we will be in very grave danger of not keeping up with what is going on in the world outside and, if that happens, we will start to lose democracy itself”.
In the light of the fact that most UK citizens already have all sorts of things managing identity and intruding on their privacy – through their use of online services and subscription to loyalty card systems – Labour Lord Harris said it would be better to have a simple system on which everyone could rely, run by the UK government on behalf of its citizens.
Demand for evidence
However, Liberal Democrat Lord Scriven challenged those in favour of ID cards to point to a “direct correlation” between a reduction in crime levels and the citizens having ID cards.
“We need proof, not general statements. Those who suggest that ID cards will reduce the incidence of crime should give the statistics that show a correlation between ID cards and a reduction in crime in Germany, Spain and France,” he said.
Lord Scriven said he would also like to see a correlation between identity cards and a reduction in terrorism, or statistical evidence that there is more identity fraud in the UK than in countries that have ID cards.
He also argued that, if UK citizens were forced to have compulsory ID cards, it would undermine the “very British” values of freedom and civil liberty.
In a similar vein, fellow Liberal Democrat Lord Oates said there were many reasons – both of principle and practicality – why a national identity card scheme is a “very bad idea”.
The most important issue of principle, he said, is that it would “fundamentally alter” the relationship between the state and its citizens. “It violates the fundamental traditions of Britain that have kept our liberties safe,” he said.
Lord Oates cautioned against having too much faith in biometric data, saying 10% of French biometric passports have been found to be forged, and noted that, despite having ID cards, countries such as Italy and France have been unable to deal with the problems of illegal workers and tax evasion.
Labour Lord Hughes noted that no-one had argued that the use of identity cards is a “silver bullet” that will solve every problem. “However, they are a necessary tool which I believe must be used,” he said.
ID benefits remain unproven
Given the government’s track record of occasionally acting first and thinking second, Labour Lord Rosser said the issue raised by the debate should be considered carefully.
Lord Rosser called on the government to give an “evidence-based” response and set up a review of the advantages or disadvantages of an ID system, looking at other countries that have such systems so that decisions made on what measures to adopt are “clearly evidence-based”.
As the debate neared its end, Home Office minister Lord Bates said that the system proposed by Labour failed “essential tests” and was expensive.
He said there were already a large number of “established and robust” identity documents like passports and driving licences to establish and verify people’s identity.
Denying that the Conservative party was ideologically opposed to ID cards, he said that, for 10 years, the party had been clear that it did not believe that to be the way forward.
Lord Bates noted that neither the police nor the security services have called for the introduction of ID cards to tackle fraud and crime.
“What they are asking for are additional powers such as those proposed in the investigatory powers Bill and in the counterterrorism legislation that was introduced last year,” he said.
In conclusion, Lord Bates reiterated that the government was not opposed to ID cards in an ideological way. “We have considered the case that has been made and have found it wanting. That debate will continue,” he said.