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Tory and Lib Lords plan to hobble ID cards scheme

Amendment would make registration optional

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Tory and Liberal Democrat peers plan to 'decouple' passports and identity cards by allowing passport applicants to opt out of the National Identity Register, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph. Although the Government describes the initial rollout of the ID scheme as voluntary, it intends that ID cards first be deployed via passport renewals, with those needing new passports having no choice over being registered; removal of this aspect of the Bill could fatally undermine its ability to achieve critical mass for ID cards.

A similar attempt to amend the Bill was made in the House of Commons earlier this year by Labour MP for Walthamstow Neil Gerrard. During that debate Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said that "unpicking the ID card from the passport would drive a coach and horses, to coin a phrase, through the entire structure of the system that we aim to produce." There is however, as we explained here, a difference between conforming to international biometric passport standards and constructing the centralised database and pervasive national ID system the Government aims to produce.

Although Gerrard's amendment failed, the Government's majority in the Commons was substantially reduced, and if Tory and Liberal peers unite in January it seems likely that they will succeed in breaking the link between passport and ID card. At this stage, however, they are not likely to attempt to throw the whole Bill out, because ID cards were a Government manifesto commitment, and convention dictates that the unelected Lords should not oppose the implementation of these.

The Telegraph also reports a little-noticed reversal in the Lords for the Government last month, when peers rejected plans to invalidate and recall all old style paper driving licences. For new licences and replacements, these were replaced by photocard licences some years ago, but whereas photocard licences need to be renewed regularly, the old style non-photo licences remain, under current legislation, valid until such time as the bearer finds it necessary to replace it (e.g. on moving house).

The Government had included a clause on "Compulsory surrender of old-form licences" in the Road Safety Bill, but opposition peers suspected that the Government could be planning to make the driving licence a "designated document" under the ID card scheme, eventually making it necessary to have an ID card in order to obtain a driving licence. Peers also feared that ultimately all existing licences, including the current generation of photocard licence, could be withdrawn as the licence database was integrated with the ID scheme.

In response the Government declined to give an absolute guarantee that the licence would not become a designated document, although Lord Davies of Oldham said that any such move would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. He argued that "some fraud is perpetrated in European countries by people using British driving licences, which in their present form are rather inadequate identification."

It would however seem likely that photocard licences, which the Government does not intend to withdraw at the moment, are rather more likely to be accepted as a form of identification than the paper ones it does wish to withdraw. Ironically, although the photocard licence was introduced in order to improve the security of the system, it has instead become a security problem, and although the licence was initially considered as a possible mechanism for speeding ID card adoption, the poor state of the driving licence database was one of the reasons this option was rejected.

It can even be argued that the introduction of the photocard licence has encouraged ID fraud. It has been relatively easy for fraudsters to obtain a licence, but because it looks and feels like 'photo ID', it is far more readily accepted as proof of identity than the paper licence is, and can therefore be used directly as an ID document or to support the establishment of stronger fraudulent ID, particularly in countries familiar with ID cards in this format, but perhaps unfamiliar with the relative strengths of British ID documents.

During the Commons ID card debates this kind of process was described by Tory MP Patrick Mercer, drawing on his experience as a soldier in Northern Ireland, where photo driving licences were first introduced as an anti-terror measure. This "quasi-identity card... I think—had a converse effect to that which the Government sought... anybody who had such a card or driving licence on their person had a pass, which, if shown to police or soldiers, gave them free passage. So, it had precisely the opposite effect to that which was intended."

Effectively - as security experts frequently point out - apparently stronger ID can have a negative effect in that it means that the people responsible for checking it become more likely to accept it as conclusive, and less likely to consider the individual bearing it in any detail. A similar effect has been observed following the introduction of chip and PIN credit cards, where ownership of the card and knowledge of the PIN is now almost always viewed as conclusive. ®

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