An update from the Liberal Democrats on Labour’s wasteful ID cards scheme

What has happened?

  • On June 30th, Alan Johnson announced that ID cards would be voluntary for British citizens. This meant the ditching of a scheme that would have made it compulsory for airport staff and pilots at Manchester and London City airports to have them, as part of the ID cards trial.
  • Previously, the government said they would be compulsory once 80% of the population had them.
  • Johnson was also forced to admit that the government had previously wrongly presented ID cards as a ‘panacea’ for terrorism.
  • Johnson did say he remained a supporter of ID cards and that the government was accelerating their role out. The pilot scheme currently being rolled out in Manchester (the city, not just the airport) will be extended across the North West next year.
  • However, those applying for a ID card or a passport (after 2011 supposedly, though this keeps moving) will automatically have their details added to the National Identity Register (which is what a lot of people oppose).
  • They are now selling ID cards as a cheaper, more convenient, voluntary alternative to a passport.

What did the Tories say?

  • They accused the government of “an absurd fudge” and said it was “symbolic of a government in chaos.” They claim Johnson is against ID cards (and would scrap them) but that Brown is making him press ahead.
  • They then called an Opposition Day debate in the Commons on July 6th.
  • They had supported ID cards at the beginning but were now convinced that Labour couldn’t deliver the scheme. They had concerns about data security and said ID cards wouldn’t combat crime, terrorism or illegal immigration.
  • They also confirmed their opposition to the National Identity Register, which we tried to smoke them out on with an amendment to the motion.
  • They do, however, remain in favour of biometric passports.

What do we say?

  • This is another nail in the coffin for the government’s illiberal ID cards policy, which will soon be so voluntary that only Home Office mandarins seeking promotion will have them.
  • Airport workers did not want to be guinea pigs for this deeply unpopular scheme, which has now been reduced to nothing more than a second-rate passport.
  • These expensive and intrusive plans should be ditched now. The vast amount of money would be far better spent on something that will actually fight crime and terrorism – ten thousand more police on the street.
  • We also oppose the register as well as ID cards themselves.
  • We have described the cards and register as a “technological solution in search of a problem.” Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should.
  • It is telling that the government has ditched all plans for compulsory ID cards for anyone eligible to vote at the next election – we have described them in the past as having the potential to be a “laminated poll tax.”
  • There is also the issue of thin end of the wedge/mission creep/future Govts argument. The government claim that only certain information will be held and that ID cards won’t be necessary to access public services. However, it does not take a huge imagination to see Govt one day arguing the need to put medical records, criminal records, financial records etc on your ID card and making you have one to go to the library; access benefits; visit your GP etc. Then to all intense and purposes, they would be compulsory.
  • Our opposition to ID cards has been consistent and principled (unlike the Tories). People should not have to justify their identity to the state when going about their business. We would spend the money on 10,000 police.

What about foreign nationals?

  • ID cards are still mandatory for foreign nationals and are currently being rolled out to that group.
  • We oppose ID cards for foreign nationals. The Tories don’t. We don’t think that guests in our country should be treated differently from British citizens.
  • They are not going to solve terrorism – the Madrid bombers all had valid Spanish identity documents. Neither will it solve the problem of ‘clean skins’ (people without a terrorist record, but with terrorist intentions). Or crime – the police generally have a problem catching criminals, not identifying them.
  • Nor will it sort illegal immigration – employers are already required to do checks on worker’s immigration status but may unscrupulous ones do not. What we need is more spot-checks and prosecutions, not ID cards.

What does this all mean for costs?

  • No one really knows. There is little more murky in public finance terms than the ID card costings.
  • The government will charge people £30 for the card and for the cost of taking their biometric information (£28 is the rumour for that).
  • The government claim the total cost of ID cards and biometric passports is likely to be £5 billion over 10 years. But they claim that only £1 billion of this is for ID cards. They also claim that this will be claimed back by charging people.
  • However, as soon as the scheme becomes ‘voluntary’, then the cost of recouping the substantial overheads is spread among fewer people. They cannot surely now raise as much money as first thought.
  • We have always maintained that the real costs will be far, far higher – they don’t include any costs incurred outside the Identity and Passport Service (such as for example installing card readers in other locations); the government’s record with large-scale IT projects is they tend to be far over cost and over time; and no one really knows how much this is going to cost until the government get further down the line with it, the LSE estimated in 2005 that costs could be anything up to £19 billion.