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UK biometric ID card morphs into £30 'passport lite'

So what price the £93 passport?

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The Home Office appears to have invented a £30 'Passport Lite' - possibly accidentally, given that a severe decline in the numbers of people paying for the the full-price passport (which we can perhaps now call the Passport World Traveller) would make its ID card costings looks even more implausible. The existence or non-existence of 'Passport Lite' hinges on whether or not the UK ID card will be valid as a document for international travel and, according to the Home office, it will be.

As we say, this could well be an accident, because although national ID cards are widely used as travel documents within the EU and, therefore, there is no logical reason why a UK national ID card shouldn't be valid in just the same way, the Government currently expects to receive £93 for ID card and passport from around 80 per cent of the population. If large numbers of people felt they could manage without full passports then this won't happen, because these people will only be paying £30. Conspiracy theorists may conjure with the thought that this £30 'bargain' has been cooked up in order to bolster crumbling support for ID cards, but we feel that would be a desperate measure too far.

In any event, the relevant text, in the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill, was probably drawn up before the Government knew ID cards were in trouble. Section 25 of the Bill, Proof of Right of Abode, amends the Immigration Act 1971's list of the documents that can be used as proof of right of abode when entering the UK by adding "an ID card issued under the Identity Cards Act 2006 describing him as a British citizen."

Yes, we know, the Identity Cards Act 2006 does not currently exist, and this is further proof that the Government regards Parliament as a tiresome formality, but this is established - press on. According to the Home Office, under the 1971 Act, right of abode in the UK "means that you are entirely free from United Kingdom immigration control. You do not need to obtain the permission of an immigration officer to enter the United Kingdom..." but "you must prove your claim" by production of either a passport describing you as as UK citizen or UK and Colonies citizen with right of abode, or a certificate of entitlement. A certificate of entitlement, incidentally, is a sticker for putting in other kinds of passport. The amendment in the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill simply adds the ID card to the list, so as and when (or if) ID cards ship, whipping one out will provide sufficient evidence for you to whip past UK immigration control.

There are some limitations, and some possibilities to consider. The new wording ought to mean that you can enter the UK on a UK ID card, but your ability to use it as your sole travel document will depend on whether other countries will let you enter or exit on it. There ought not to be much of a problem with this in the EU, because in those cases where documentation is actually demanded national ID cards are usually acceptable (and we've heard from one reader whose UK army ID card was "accepted across Europe as a national ID card" which he could use at border control), but elsewhere it may not be so easy. The US, however, would like to have the ability to read UK ID cards, and for some reason we do seem usually to give them what they'd like. Which might have odd implications.

If the US is going to read UK ID cards, it's mainly going to want to read them at border control, right? The information on UK ID cards is going to be essentially the same as on UK biometric passports, with the initial variation that the first generation of biometric passports will not include fingerprint. Therefore, the ID card will be more likely to provide the US immigration authorities with the data it wants than the earlier biometric passports. So the US ought to prefer an ID card over a passport.

This points us towards a logical conclusion. The US-G8-EU vision of the biometric future is of a world where machine-read biometrics ID everybody. This requires, obviously, that everybody's readers read everybody's cards, plus a level of compatibility between different countries' cards, and a level of data interchange between countries. Now, if in that world everybody has interoperable ID cards and everybody has readers that will read them, what's a passport for? It's only there because it's currently the only single international standard for travel (which could change in the longer term), and in the UK, in order to provide a fictional* justification for charging people shedloads of money.

Fortunately the brave new biometric world will never go fully live, and stands a pretty good chance of crashing and burning before doing so as far as the EU and US are concerned. Nor does it seem absolutely certain that the UK ID Cards Bill will even make it onto the statute book, never mind actually work/ship. Nevertheless, the total demise of the UK scheme would not of itself turn the clock back. Take the ID scheme out of the equation and we still have the US, the EU and the G8 committed to widespread use of biometric ID. In the EU we will still have a biometric visa system (with accompanying database and data exchange), biometric ID cards for resident non-EU nationals, and the intent to produce an EU standard for biometric ID cards. Tony Blair regards biometric ID as inevitable, and he should know, given that he's one of the ones who'll make it so, if they're not stopped. ®

* You may recall that last year, when the Home Office announced it would issue separate biometric ID cards and biometric passports (which it was always going to do anyway), it claimed this was in response to public demand. As we noted at the time, the public demand stemmed from the Government's own dubious surveys and focus groups, and the results of these, published by the Home Office alongside version one of the ID Cards Bill, actually showed that what the public (or what they were passing off as the public) actually wanted was a combined passport and ID card. We seem to recall also noting at the time that telling them where to shove their ID cards wasn't an available option.

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Related links:

Clarke's ID card cost laundry starts to break surface
Biometrics won't deter passport fraudsters, chief admits
ID cards halve Labour majority

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