An unpopular piece of expensive plastic?

15/03/06

I have recently had an interesting conversation with Phil Booth, National Coordinator for the NO2ID scheme – seen as an extremist by many proponents of the UK’s national ID card scheme.

Having just written a relatively positive story about ID cards, I started the phone call with my tin hat on, expecting a barrage of unreasonable negativity. But instead I got an eloquent argument against the case for ID cards.

Among other points, he noted that despite the government’s massive resources and authority to market the scheme, its popularity now hangs in the balance. This, he put down to the government’s blatant attempts at ‘spin’ (via misleading identity fraud figures), its concealment of information (cost assumptions) and bullying (via Parliamentary Whips). He said: “This does not bode well for a system that, if it is to work at all, must be based in trust. The prime concern of the Government should have been retaining the trust of the citizen - they aren’t going to win that back now, and they don’t deserve to.”

He also sounded a warning shot for the security document and related industries: “If you think about it, all those people believing that ID cards will prevent all sorts of ills really isn’t going to help in the long run, when it turns out that they don’t…My personal opinion is that by proceeding down this path, they may ultimately screw things up for the biometrics, security and identity industries in the UK for at least a couple of decades.”

Whether or not you agree with Phil Booth, who is a vocal character in the debate, it is difficult to escape the fact that the debate is also drawing in people usually far less voluble in their opposition, and that raises the question – why?

There is no doubt there is a general feeling the UK government is attempting to force through the Bill. There is also a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the government is attempting to lull the public into a false sense of security, claiming that this will be a voluntary ID cards scheme, as promised in its election manifesto, when it seems clear that it will be voluntary only in the loosest sense of the word.

The latest argument in the Houses of Parliament centres on the absolute requirement for citizens to be registered for an ID card when they apply for a passport. This, say opponents to the Identity Cards Bill, would amount to ‘creeping compulsion’ and should not be tolerated.

The reason, of course, that the government want ID cards to be linked to the issuance of passports, is because given the choice most people would choose not to pay to acquire such a card if they really didn’t have to. (Especially considering the few true advantages to the citizen that such a card would appear to offer.)

This would mean that the government would be hard pressed to reach the levels of adoption that are required before the card could be made compulsory for all.

And here lies the crux of the problem. Many of the ID card scheme’s benefits will only arise when the card is made mandatory. And if the issuance of ID cards cannot be accelerated, by tying it to something such as the issuance of passports, then the card could become an unproductive, yet expensive piece of plastic.

The government cannot afford for this to happen, and so the battle will rage on, perhaps even until the government is forced to invoke the Parliament Act and force the Bill, against the House of Lords’ wishes, onto the statute books – which would make the legislation even more unpopular and give Phil Booth another weapon in his already sizeable armoury.

 

Mark Lockie

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