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Select Committee criticises ID Cards Bill

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Government plans for a national identity cards scheme will change the fundamental relationship between the State and the individual, according to a report published last week by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution.

The Committee, which considers whether draft laws will have unexpected or ill-advised consequences for the constitution, warns that the Identity Cards Bill seeks to create a database that will record more information about every adult in the UK than has ever been placed on a single database before.

Such is the significance of the database to the Government proposals that the Committee suggests that the Bill should more properly be known as the “National Identity Register and Identity Cards Bill”.

“Such a scheme may have the benefits that are claimed for it, but the existence of this extensive new database in the hands of the State makes abuse of privacy possible,” says the report.

The report suggests various methods by which privacy concerns may be lessened, stressing that the information contained on the Register should not be regarded as the “property” of the Home Secretary.

Fundamentally, says the report, the Home Secretary should not be responsible for the development, operation and maintenance of the scheme, but should be responsible only for the development of the proposals and the regulations within which it will operate.

An expert advisory or consultative committee should be set up to assist with this.

An independent Registrar, reporting directly to Parliament, should be created to oversee the maintenance of the Register, says the report, which compares the possible independence of the Registrar to that currently enjoyed by Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue.

Operation of the scheme should be overseen by the proposed National Identity Scheme Commissioner, as set out in the current proposals, according to the Committee.

However, it expresses concern over the lack of provision in the Bill for the independence of the Commissioner from the Secretary of State, or the empowerment of the Commissioner to deal with complaints from individuals concerned about the Secretary of State’s handling of their cases.

Accordingly the Committee suggests that the Commissioner should be independent, his powers increased and that he should be empowered to report directly to Parliament – rather than to the Secretary of State, as is currently proposed.

Finally, on the question of timing, the report suggests that Ministers should not try to provide in the current proposals for the future extension of the scheme from a voluntary one to a mandatory one.

At present the draft leaves Ministers with the power to enact the “compulsory” aspects of the Bill through a “super-affirmative” procedure, but does not detail the date on which the Government is likely to create the necessary legislation.

Ministers have said in the past that this is likely to be in 2012 or 2013 and that the legislation will be pushed through once a critical mass of the people have voluntarily received identity cards.

The Committee suggests there is no urgent need to provide for this now and that the Bill should be limited only to the introduction of the voluntary stage of the scheme, on the grounds that later legislation will better reflect the inevitable practical changes that experience of such a scheme will bring.

This is especially important, concludes the report, as “these measures reflect a significant change in the constitutional relationship between the State and the individual”. In these circumstances, “the change to a universal and compulsory scheme should not be brought about by secondary legislation, even by a “super-affirmative” procedure”.

The report follows in the wake of two earlier Parliamentary Committee reports critical of the Government proposals; one by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons and the other by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

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OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution Report on the Identity Cards Bill (6-page PDF)

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