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Minister: Banks should give ID cards to people with no money

Can't prove who you are? Here's £30 quid then...

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Home Office Identical Minister Meg Hillier has hit on a brilliant wheeze that could solve all her social exclusion problems. Banks need proof of ID when you open an account, right? Banks give people free stuff when they open an account, right? Sooooo... banks could give people free ID cards when they open accounts!

This cunning plan clearly has a superficial - if somewhat recursive - brilliance to it. Meg's socially excluded constituents have, she alleges, trouble opening bank accounts because they have difficulty proving who they are, and demonstrating a credit history. So first the bank ponies-up for an ID card, they go get one by - er - proving who they are, then they go back to the bank, prove who they are again, and they get a bank account.

"But I wanted an Amazon voucher and an iPod…"

The British Bankers Association immediately pointed to one snagette in the scheme. Spokesman Brian Mairs told Bloomberg that because ID cards were not compulsory, "their use within banks will complement rather than replace other proofs such as passports, driving licenses or utility bills"; and "holding an ID card will not entitle anybody to any financial product or service".

And that last bit could be seen as flagging another critical flaw in Meg's plans to fight social exclusion. It is not, surely, difficulties in proving their identity that stop the socially excluded opening bank accounts and getting credit - might not the fact that they don't have any money have something to do with it?

Banks give free stuff to students and young people because they're good bets. Some of them will certainly wind up socially excluded, but enough of them will have sufficient earnings ahead of them to more than justify the Amazon vouchers. People who don't have much in the way of visible earning potential are a different matter altogether.

Banks may sprinkle 'social service' pixie dust over some of their marketing, but any notions Meg has about them becoming the continuation of the Department of Work & Pensions by other means is unlikely to impress them. They make money from deposits and from lending money to people who're likely to be able to pay them back (in theory, anyway…), so consider this.

Punter walks in, doesn't have any evidence of having paid a utility bill in their life, doesn't have a passport, can't afford £30 for an ID card either. So you give them £30, and while you're about it you spring for the network of fingerprint readers the government can't currently afford? Right, that'll work.

As far as dealing with the entanglement of anti-fraud and money-laundering legislation this government has brought in, banks might find ID cards helpful, if they counted as enough of a box-tick to stop the bank being liable. But they won't want to spend money on fingerprint readers ahead of ID cards becoming ubiquitous, so they'd want to box-tick on the basis of the ID card as picture ID - where it would effectively operate as a pass, as opposed to actual proof of ID. Still, it doesn't come with a free credit rating, so it's not going to make the bank any more enthusiastic about having you as a customer.

Given the Home Office's desperation, it could well agree to the notion of the ID card as a free pass for employers, financial institutions and vendors of Buckfast. And note that because the ID card is being used as a pass, short-circuiting whatever ID checks are currently used, we now have a much bigger hole in our money-laundering, immigration and underage drinking legislation (there's a pretty big hole in the last one already, of course).

So try this scenario. Someone with no utility bills, credit history or whatever but £10,000 in crumpled fivers walks into a bank and asks to open an account. Today, the bank probably wouldn't be keen, and would likely file a Suspicious Activity Report (which in itself is often just a box-tick, effectively). Tomorrow, if Mr Used Fivers waves an ID card, does the bank just say thank you very much, and count itself as covered?

A socially-excluded bank robbers' charter, then… ®

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