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UK ID cards to be issued with first biometric passports

'Voluntary' nature of first phase now even more debatable

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What's left of the 'voluntary' figleaf to the UK's ID scheme will erode in the next few months, when Home Secretary David Blunkett introduces legislation that will allow implementation of the scheme and include provision for a rolling programme to issue ID cards along with passport renewals. The new model passports are closely linked to the scheme anyway, so even without the ID card, being issued one would mean you were added to the national identity register, but the arrival of an actual card along with the new passport will make its presence far more visible, far earlier, to the general public. Previously the Home Office had said it would designate passports and driving licences as ID documents, but hadn't mentioned issuing actual ID cards with them.

Blunkett announced the move some considerable way into his speech to the Labour Party Conference ten days ago. Reporting of the speech at the time concentrated on anti-crime measures and more funding for counter-terrorism, and the full text of the speech was mysteriously unavailable until a few days ago. According to this text: "... we will legislate this winter to upgrade our secure passport system, to create a new, clean database on which we will understand and know who is in or country, who is entitled to work, to services, to the something for something society which we value. As people renew their passports, they will receive their new identity card. The cost of biometrics and the card will be added to the total of passports."

The increased cost of the new model passport has previously been justified on the basis that the biometrics will be needed in order for the passport to conform to new international standards. Adding the cost of the "voluntary" ID card to the passport is therefore a novel innovation.

A similar approach could be adopted as the ID system rolls out to driving licences, with the licence-renewing public having no choice but to accept the ID card if they want a licence, and no choice then but to pay for it. Blunkett did not cover this in his speech, but it may be covered in the forthcoming legislation, and once these two key ID document areas are covered, the rest of the population can be slowly mopped up.

The David Blunkett who announced this effectively compulsory ID regime is, strange but true, the very same David Blunkett who, in his introduction to "Legislation on Identity Cards - A Consultation" (CM6178, presented to Parliament in April 2004) said: "...we would proceed by incremental steps, building first on existing, widely held voluntary identity documents, and only taking a final decision later to move to compulsion. Eventually everyone lawfully resident in the UK would be required to register for a card - but there would be no compulsion to carry the card or to produce it without good reason. This move to compulsion would only happen once the initial stage of the scheme had proved to be successful and following a further debate and the approval of both Houses of Parliament."

This is actually a pretty useful way to put it, because it allows MPs to kid themselves that we have here an incremental scheme that Parliament will have the final say-so on while giving Blunkett the freedom to crash along as fast as he likes without having actually told a flat-out lie. In this picture compulsion comes in two flavours, compulsion to register for a card and compulsion to carry one. It will not - at least in the current rounds of legislation - be compulsory to carry a card, so Parliament's approval of the move towards compulsion covers compulsion to register.

The fact that people who want passports, then probably driving licences (then benefits and healthcare, as indicated in the "consultation") will have no choice but to be registered need not be viewed as tripping the compulsion switch, because within a steadily shrinking service-free pen it will be possible for people to exist without being registered. The draft bill does however include powers "to set a date when it would become compulsory to register and be issued with a card" and "This provision could only be brought in once the initial stage of the identity cards scheme was in place and following a vote in both Houses of Parliament on a detailed report which sets out all the reasons for the proposed move to compulsion."

We think we can save the Home Office some money here. The report should say: "We might as well because nearly everyone has a card already."

And, Blunkett hopes, because it's loved. In his speech he went on to say: "We will have, for the first time, an opportunity to use the card not simply in terms of protection, but to promote our citizenship, to value the fact that being a citizen, taking on citizenship is a tremendous step as part of our mutuality, as communities and a nation." So once we've all been compelled to register for it and pay for it, we'll rejoice over it, and the ID card will become a symbol of national pride, social cohesion and unity. Nice hive you've got there, David...

Blunkett's speech also mentioned Tony Blair's electronic border surveillance announcement, made the previous day with considerably more fanfare. This meant, he said: "In two years time we will have up and running the most sophisticated system in the world." Which, as we pointed out here, is tripe. It checks the lists of passengers bound for the UK against "databases of individuals who pose a security risk," and if this counts as sophistication round at the Home Office we're in just as bad a mess as we think we're in. ®

Related links

Full text of Blunkett speech
Biometric gear to be deployed in hospitals and GPs' surgeries
UK gov pilots passenger tracking in fight against terror
Tag, track, watch, analyse - UK goes mad on crime and terror IT
Everything you never wanted to know about the UK ID card

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