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Tories slam penalties for evading 'voluntary' ID cards

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The Conservative Party claims the Labour Government's ID scheme will turn local election officers into data police.

"Town halls to snoop on homeowners for ID card evasion" is the headline of a press release issued by Tory Central Office this week, suggesting that "Big Brother" methods would be deployed against ID card evaders, backed by £2,500 fines for evaders.

A scary prospect, yes - but not quite true.

Context is everything. Hark back to our 16 December coverage of proposals for a new, national election register called CORE (Co-ordinated Online Record of Elector). The proposal discusses verifying the local electoral roll, and suggests officers check the register against another, hypothetical database:

"With a CORE consolidated dataset, it should be possible to check elector records against a dataset requiring much higher levels of verification. The other dataset might also make notification of changes to personal details or addresses a requirement and discrepancies could be referred back to an electoral registration officer for investigation." [132 p49]

Not surprisingly, you can guess what that "other dataset" might be:

"... The anticipated high level of security checking and intended requirement for citizens to notify changes may make the ID card register dataset a particularly useful comparator."

The consultation paper then invites comments, although the question is framed in such a way as to invite a particular kind of answer. We're asked to suggest which "datasets may be more suitable for CORE to link to if there were to be such linkage in the future".

So it's a proposal, not a mandate; there's no new responsibility on local electoral roll officers that they don't already have; and the penalty floated by Central Office is the standard penalty under the ID Card Bill for not having an ID card, but this won't be operative until the ID card is made compulsory.

But credit to the Tories for raising the issue at this stage. We suggest a more careful approach could pay dividends.

The value of the ID scheme's "dataset" depends on the quality of information it contains - and if no one's on it, it's of no use to anyone, not least local election officers.

To date, the Government has had great difficulty getting the ID scheme off the ground - not suprisingly, as it offers little value to the public in return for a fairly considerable expense.

So while the card is still, officially, a "voluntary"' one, Ministers are seeking to add compulsory enrollment wherever they can make the case for it. Tory and Lib Dem peers have vowed to sink the proposal to only issue new passports to ID card holders - a move which would effectively deny ID refuseniks the right to travel. The CORE proposal doesn't quite disenfranchise refuseniks, but it wouldn't be crazy to infer that in the not-too-distant future.

More practically, however, electoral officers already are data police - so from a strictly utilitarian point of view, the question of linkage boils down to one of cost and value. Cross-checking one database against another still costs time and money. So is a dataset that doesn't contain a lot of data going to be a help or a hindrance to local election officials trying to combat fraud?

ID cards, like so many technology wheezes, remain a solution desperately looking for a problem. ®

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