The case against ID cards
by Peter Lilley MP
The Bow Group
The Bow Group has three aims:
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and a wider audience;
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? Bow Publications Limited 2005
Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP is Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden. He
has served as Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, Shadow Chancellor,
Secretary of State for Social Security and Secretary of State for Trade and
Industry. He is a former Chairman of the Bow Group.
? The Government?s plan for compulsory identity cards is a bad idea, in a
bad bill, introduced for the worst possible motives.
? Compulsory ID cards would not address the real problem in tackling
organised crime, terrorism and illegal immigration, which is not identifying
suspects but proving them guilty or removing them. ID cards simply divert
resources away from this area.
? Public support for ID cards rests on the mistaken belief that most
immigration is illegal coupled with ignorance of the fact that all illegal
immigrants can, and most do, claim asylum at which point they are already
given an ID card. Most supporters of ID cards believe the police will
check the ID of anyone who looks ?foreign?. Yet that would be odious and
unsustainable since it would force ethnic minority citizens constantly to
justify their presence.
? The public sector?s record in the successful implementation of IT projects
is woeful; and this would be the biggest yet.
? Biometric technology still involves high levels of error. At present success
rates, even if each UK citizen only had their card checked once a year, 4
million people would be falsely accused of not being who they are.
? On the government?s own figures the cost is huge – ?5.5 billion over ten
years ? so a passport/ID card will cost ?85 per adult. All past experience
and independent experts suggest the cost could easily double. This could
be Labour?s poll tax.
? If the scheme does not require everyone to carry and produce cards at all
times the claimed benefits would largely disappear.
? Yet if carrying cards is made compulsory even leaving leave home without
one would be an offence; failure to notify a change of address means a
?1,000 fine and failure to register means a ?2,500 fine.
? The introduction of compulsory ID cards in peacetime has been the
preserve of fascist and communist states; such plans have always been
intended to control their citizens. Common law countries have all rejected
them in peacetime.
? In sum, compulsory ID cards represent an unjustifiable encroachment on
liberty in return for at best minor benefits, and at huge financial cost which
would be better spent on more police or better control of our borders.
The proposal for compulsory identity cards is not new. It has been hawked
round Whitehall for decades and offered to every new minister looking for an
eye catching initiative. When this government finally swallowed the idea, I
remarked to a senior civil servant that the whole saga was worthy of an
episode of ?Yes Minister?. He replied: “You thought ?Yes Minister? was a
comedy ? now you know it?s a documentary!?
Whenever ID cards were considered by the last Conservative government I
described them as ?a solution looking for a problem?. On examining each
potential problem, ID cards were found to be a largely illusory solution. It
? the police rarely have any difficulty identifying suspects ? only proving
? terrorists normally conceal their intentions rather than their identities;
? benefit fraudsters usually misrepresent their circumstances not who
? and all illegal immigrants can, and most do, claim asylum whereupon
they are already required to have an identity card containing their finger
prints and photo.
Of course, if circumstances had changed since then and it could be shown
that ID cards could, in particular, make a substantial contribution to tackling
terrorism and saving lives, I would have to reconsider my opposition to
compulsory ID cards. Like most Conservatives I do not believe there is some
absolute principle which rules them out in all conceivable circumstances. For
example, they were accepted as a regrettable necessity in wartime.
The government suggest the attitudes of the police, security forces and other
departments have changed and cite statements from them supporting
compulsory ID cards. Such statements are not in themselves very
compelling. Officials will always support government policy in public. That is
their job. Given the willingness of the security services at government behest
to stretch the evidence in favour of the existence of weapons of mass
destruction in Iraq we should treat their support with a degree of scepticism.
The acid test of whether a department really finds a policy valuable is whether
it will make a contribution from their budget towards that policy. Ministers
refuse to address that question. But it is clear that no departmental
contributions are forthcoming since the entire cost of the ID card system
(currently put at ?5.5 billion over ten years) is to be born by the users ? at ?85
In opposition Tony Blair said:
“Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on compulsory ID
cards as the Tory Right demand, let that money provide thousands
more police officers on the beat in our local communities.?1
Now the cost has risen to billions of pounds he prefers to waste that on plastic
cards rather than policemen. I believe his change of heart is entirely cynical.
It reflects government by focus group. The focus groups showed that the
public felt the government had failed on crime and immigration; the
Conservatives were trusted to do better; and Michael Howard was a
successful Home Secretary who reduced both crime and immigration. Focus
groups also showed that the public believed ID cards would help tackle both
problems. So Blair is pressing ahead with ID cards to create the impression
that he is being tough on crime and immigration.
Having adopted the idea cynically, the government embraced them
wholeheartedly because ID cards fit squarely within the New Labour mould.
They have the smack of modernity ? witness Ministers? talk of biometrics,
smart cards and new technology; they are nakedly populist; they make Britain
more like our European neighbours, many of whom have identity card
schemes of one sort or another2; and they reflect New Labour?s desire to
nanny and control us.
Finally, Blair hopes a docile media can be persuaded to focus on differences
of opinion about this issue in the Conservative Party rather than in his own
ranks. I profoundly respect Michael Howard?s consistency on this issue as
1 Speech to the Labour Party conference Oct 1995
2 It is notable by contrast that Britain?s common law counterparts such as Australia, New
Zealand and the United States have all firmly resisted identity cards (see further below).
much as I despair of the shallow opportunism of both Blair and the Liberal
Democrat home affairs spokesman, who have both flip-flopped on this issue.
But those of us who have reached a different conclusion have an obligation to
expose both the hypocrisy and weakness of the Labour government?s case
and the dangers compulsory ID cards pose for ancient liberties – which all
Conservatives and most of our fellow citizens cherish.
When the government first announced its conversion to ID cards it was under
attack for waste in the public services. So it called them Entitlement Cards,
frankly admitting that it would have little role to play in combating terrorism.
When the government came under attack for their failure to control
immigration, they said that the ID Card?s “primary purpose? would be to
control illegal immigration.
When the focus groups told them that they were lagging behind the
Conservatives on crime, they said that the primary issue was to control crime.
Now, because they want to frighten us ahead of the election with the threat of
terrorism, they claim ID cards are essential to control terrorism.
There is a general rule, to which I know of no exceptions, that when a
government keeps shifting the grounds on which it justifies a measure that
means it lacks any solid justification at all. Let us examine a little more
closely the reasons they give for their compulsory ID card scheme.
The Metropolitan police told the Home Affairs Select Committee:
“We have seen no evidence either here or in previous debates, that
suggests the introduction of an identity card will in itself lead to a
reduction in crime or an increase in detection rates.?
The Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, Mrs Jan Berry,
expressed more enthusiasm for ID cards. But when asked to be specific
about their uses mentioned only situations where they would be helpful if
members of the public were required to carry them at all times which the
government says will not be part of their scheme.3
The government?s original consultation document4 listed eight possible
benefits from introducing what was then called the Entitlement Card.
Combatting terrorism was not among them – even though 9/11 was still fresh
in people?s minds.
That initial scepticism has been born out in practice. The worst terrorist
atrocity in Europe ? the Madrid bombing ? was carried out in one of the few
countries which make it compulsory to carry an ID card at all times. They
likewise failed to stop the bombings in Istanbul. And those who planned the
9/11 attacks chose to do so from Germany which requires its citizens to have
an ID card though not to carry it ? much as the Labour Government proposes
here. The perpetrators of 9/11 then travelled to the USA under their true
The main problem with terrorists is finding and apprehending them, not
identifying them once apprehended. When pressed, British ministers admit as
much (although this has not stopped them redeploying the argument
thereafter). David Blunkett was forced by one of his own MPs, Chris Mullen,
to concede to the House that:
“I accept that it is important that we do not pretend that an entitlement
card [as it was then known] would be an overwhelming factor in
combating international terrorism.?5
They fall back on the argument that at least ID cards would create additional
obstacles for terrorists to overcome. Nonetheless, it will not be much of an
obstacle to froreign terrorists since the one group not required to have an ID
card are foreigners who come here for less than 3 months at a time.
Recently ministers have claimed that “35% of terrorists use false or multiple
identities?6. No source is given for this figure. The Regulatory Impact
Assessment of the Identity Cards Bill states that:
“At least one third of terrorist suspects are known to have used more
than one identity either for facilitation or planning the commission of
Interestingly, it does not claim that false identities are used by those
committing terrorist atrocities. Indeed the document goes on to admit “The
risk is mainly focussed on the use of false identities for facilitation?. The only
3 Reply to Q269 in Ev 41
4 Cm 5557 July 2002
5 Hansard, 3 July 2002
6 Hansard 17th May 2004 col 773W
example the authors of this document cite of an (attempted) terrorist act
where “the issuing of identity documents [may have] increased the risk of
commission of terrorist acts? is “the ease with which Richard Reid (?the shoe
bomber?) was able to obtain more than one passport?. In fact even he went
on his mission under his true identity.
At most, that example can justify introducing biometric identifiers into
passports to prevent one individual holding more than one British passport
under different names. Even that will not stop terrorists and their “facilitators?
holding passports from more than one country in different names.
There is a common assumption that much benefit fraud relies on claiming
under false identities. I probably shared that view when I started a drive
against fraud as Secretary of State for Social Security. In fact we found the
overwhelming majority of fraud involves misrepresenting circumstances ? for
example, claiming out-of-work benefits when working. The Government now
estimates that total benefit fraud involving false identities is between ?20-50
million a year which is about 2% of total benefit fraud.
The main focus should be on stopping the other 98%. But even to deal with
the 2% of cases which are based on identity fraud does not require an identity
card. Tightening up on the use and issue of National Insurance Numbers will
help. Unfortunately a significant element of identity fraud involves
accomplices inside the DWP who would also be able to circumvent an ID
Although opposed to a compulsory national ID card scheme, as Secretary of
State I launched a Benefit Payment card to replace giro cheques and order
books. These were a very insecure means of payment leading to losses
through theft and forgery of about ?150million a year. Only those in receipt of
benefit payments via post offices ? around 15 to 20 million people ? would
have had these cards. The system adopted had already been introduced in
the Irish Republic which had a similar welfare system and post office payment
network to the UK but covering about a million beneficiaries.
Nonetheless, two years into the Labour government they decided to abandon
this project at some cost to the tax payer. It was proving too complex to scale
up a system which had worked for 1 million people in Ireland to cover 15-20
million in the UK. At very least this raises doubts about the feasibility of
operating an entirely untried and tested ID card system covering 60 million
The overwhelming reason why the public support compulsory ID cards is their
belief that they will crack down on illegal immigration. In the government?s
own poll, 58% gave this as their prime or sole reason.
Very few people (even amongst supposedly informed commentators) are
aware that all illegal immigrants can, and most do, claim asylum and are then
already required to have an ID card ? their Application Registration Card.
Ever since 1993 their finger prints and photos have been taken. Since 2002
those identifiers have been stored on a central computer and on the cards.
This helps detect rejected asylum seekers who return to lodge fresh claims
under new names. Without this card asylum seekers are not able to claim
benefits or to work legally (if so entitled).
Public support for ID cards is based on the belief that everyone will be
required to carry one and the police will then be able to stop anyone who
looks or sounds foreign, demand to see their ID, and if they do not have one,
?send them back home?. The effect of such a policy would not be what the
public expects. If illegal immigrants were detected they would simply have to
claim asylum. They would then be given an identity card and, since very few
asylum seekers are ever removed from this country even if their claims are
rejected, they would probably be able to stay indefinitely.
But there would be a far more odious consequence. Our fellow citizens who
are members of ethnic minorities would be continually compelled to justify
their existence. Researchers from Leicester University who accompanied
police officers in France, Germany and the Netherlands7 observed that they
demanded ID disproportionately from ethnic minority residents ? including
humiliating checks in front of colleagues at people?s workplaces. Yet in no
case was an illegal immigrant detected.
In practise such a policy could not be sustained in this country. Imagine the
uproar if police tried stopping people who look or sound foreign to check their
immigration status. That would be ?institutional discrimination? on stilts. In
less than no time the police would only dare stop white people with English
accents. So the whole idea would backfire on those who now advocate it
Nonetheless, the government have fuelled the belief that ID cards would help
prevent illegal immigration. In their consultation document they gave it as the
“The identity card scheme is intended primarily as a United Kingdom
wide measure to help deter and control illegal immigration…?8
They have done so for the most cynical of reasons. They know that most
people mistakenly assume that the government is trying to restrict
immigration. So they assume that the large inflow of new immigrants that
they perceive must be the result of illegal immigration.
7 Adrien Beck and Kate Broadhurst: Policing the community: the impact of national identity
cards in the European Union, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies July 1998. NB
these checks were carried out even where carrying ID cards is not actually compulsory.
8 Home Office, Legislation on identity cards: a consultation, Cm 6178
In turn the Government think that if they introduce tough measures to control
illegal immigration people will conclude that they must be restricting
immigration as a whole. But the officials who wrote the Regulatory Impact
Assessment let the cat out of the bag. Far from trying to limit immigration as
most people assume, the document baldly admits:
“The government wants to encourage lawful migration into the
country? In sustaining and perhaps increasing current levels of lawful
migration, it is important to retain the confidence of the resident
population?. ID cards will help achieve this by convincing people “that
immigration controls will not be abused?.9
In other words, if the government mounts a high profile campaign against
“abuse of immigration controls? the public will not realise that it is actually
“encouraging? and “increasing? the present unprecedented level of
If the government seriously believed a system of compulsory ID cards could
play an important role in combating terrorism ? not to mention crime, illegal
immigration, benefit fraud etc. ? they would want it up and running as soon as
possible. During the 2nd World War a national ID card system was introduced
within months. Yet the government?s plan will be rolled out at a fairly leisurely
pace. Initially registration will be voluntary. It is not expected to become
compulsory to register until 2012. There could be no clearer evidence that
the primary motivation for this bill is populist. It is a costly example of what
Lord Butler derided as this government?s penchant for policies designed to
attract favourable headlines rather than to deliver practical benefits.
9 Identity Cards Bill Regulatory Impact Assessment 29th Nov 2004. Italics added.
A COSTLY PROJECT
Information provided by the government on the costs of their proposed system
of ID cards has not been transparent. The one thing that is clear is that the
estimated cost only goes up.
The original proposal floated in the Green Paper in 1995 suggested that a
voluntary ID card would cost ?10 -15 each or possibly less if issued at the
same time as a passport. If everyone applied for one or it was made
compulsory the total cost was estimated at ?600-1,000 million ? presumably
spread over 10 years.
The Labour government?s first proposal was costed at between ?1,318 million
(for plain plastic cards) and ?3,145 million (for sophisticated smart cards)
spread over thirteen years. The plain card option was expected to add ?10-
15 to the charge for a passport or cost ?5-15 on its own. The Consultation
Paper reassured us that: “In practice, the above fee increases represent a
worst case scenario??
Needless to say the costs continued to escalate and when the next
Consultation paper was issued in April 2004 the ID card was expected to cost
?35 on its own and in conjunction with a passport would cost ?77 (against the
current cost of ?42).
Seven months later the Regulatory Impact Assessment put the cost of
passport and ID card combined at ?85. Strangely this document gives no
overall figures for the cost of introducing and running a compulsory ID register
and card. Instead it projects the annual operating costs of the UK Passport
Service at ?415million (in constant 2004 prices) and says issuing cards to the
20% of the population who do not have a passport will cost ?85 million a year
and annual costs of the verification service will average ?50 million. Simple
arithmetic suggests the total cost over ten years will be ?5.5 billion.
Ministers, however, dispute that and claim that much of the increased cost of
running the UK Passport Service (from ?129million last year to ?415million)
will have to be incurred because of international developments. The Prime
Minister asserts that we “will effectively be obliged to use [biometric
technology] for passports, which represent the bulk of the cost – ?70 out of
?85 is for the passport?.10 In fact, all that is required to meet the International
Civil Aviation Authority rules is “a facial biometric (which can be derived from
a passport photo).?11 By itself this would add little to the current cost of a
passport. There is no requirement to include an iris biometric, nor to create a
computerised national register.
The next revision of the costs of this scheme is scheduled for completion in
early 2005. All previous experience and most outside experts confidently
suggest that costs could easily double by the time the system is finally up and
running12. If so, the cost could well exceed the old Poll Tax which was set at
?140 per head. But this would be a poll tax simply for being you. Even at ?85
per head, a household with two children at university would have to cough up
an extra ?340 just to be able to move about.
10 Hansard col 1664 15th Dec 2004.
11 www.ukpa.gov.uk 19th Nov 2004. “The UKPS and FCO in collaboration with international
partners, (including the US), have a programme of work in place to implement this
biometric in British passports from late 2005/early 2006.?
12 It is notable that no government department has provided funding for the project ?
unsurprising perhaps given the lack of concrete benefits. All the cost will be borne by
WILL IT WORK?
The experience of nearly all large public sector IT projects suggests that not
only do costs overrun but they often fail to work as planned. The Child
Support Agency: overran by 18 months; after a further 18 months only 61,000
of its 478,000 applicant were receiving payments. The DWP computers: 80%
of screens went blank. Inland Revenue tax credits system: 200,000 families
waiting over a year for payments. NHS electronic records system: planned to
cost ?6.2 billion; now claims that it could cost between ?18 billion and ?31
billion. Cattle Tracing Scheme: introduced a passport for cows who ought to
be easier to control than humans since they are usually surrounded with
barbed wire and have tags on their ears ? nonetheless 1 in 8 movement
histories are found to be incomplete; instead of 450 staff 700 are needed ?
two thirds simply to correct errors.
It is not just the IT system that will be liable to failure ? the biometric systems
on which they intend to rely simply have not been tried on any scale. Indeed
the government?s own pilot trials had to be postponed because of:
“a series of hardware, software and ergonomic problems ? remedial
actions to cure these problems continued for several weeks when, after
further tests, the system was given back to the suppliers for further
development and reconfiguration.?
Moreover, a Cabinet Office study said that biometric tests would wrongly
conclude that between 10 and 15% of those tested were not who they actually
were. So if every adult card holder were checked just once a year there
would upwards of 4 million people a year who would be falsely accused of not
being who they actually are.
US tests have reached a similar conclusion. The National Institute of Science
and Technology stated in a report to Congress that biometric identifiers
“always look stronger and easier in theory than in practice. Effective
enrolment is difficult and physical spoofing is a lot easier than we would
A recent US report13 makes it clear how difficult it is to make these systems
work effectively. Four years ago the US authorities began struggling to link
the finger print checks carried out on foreigners entering America with the
FBI?s finger print records of criminals and terrorist suspects. Four years and
$40 million later they can still only check 1% of foreign visitors against FBI
files. Current border checks apparently miss 73% of criminal aliens who are
listed on FBI files. It takes up to a month to transfer data on new terrorist
suspects from the FBI to the immigration authorities. And the FBI is still
completely unable to access the fingerprints of foreign visitors at all!
Another recent US report14 suggests that before introducing complex new
systems it would be wiser to concentrate on making existing systems like
checks on stolen passports work. The report begins with the breathtaking
admission that: “Aliens applying for admission to the United States using
stolen passports have little reason to fear being caught and are usually
admitted. Our analysis showed that it made only a small difference whether
the stolen passports were posted on the lookout system.? Indeed, 73% of
those using stolen passports of whose theft the US had been notified and duly
posted an alert were nonetheless allowed into the USA ? half of them since
It is worth asking: why has no bank, supermarket or credit card company
started using this biometric technology? Could it be that they believe the cost
will be too high, the danger of alienating their customers too great, and the
likelihood of breakdown too serious to risk?
13 US Department of Justice, Follow-up Review of the Status of IDENT/IFAFIS Integration
Report No I-2005-001 December 2004
14 Department of Homeland Security, A Review of the Use of Stolen Passports from Visa
Waiver Countries to Enter the United States 01G-05-07 December 2004
JUST A PIECE OF PLASTIC?
The arguments against ID cards are not just practical. They would increase
the power of the state and change the relationship between the citizen and
The states which have introduced ID cards in peacetime have almost all
had communist or fascist regimes. They introduced them precisely in
order to control their citizens. That may not be the objective of this
government but they are creating a system which could be abused in an
oppressive manner by a future government of an (even) more authoritarian
disposition than New Labour.
What is virtually certain is that once the initial scheme is up and running the
pressure to make it compulsory to carry the card at all times as well as to
possess one will be irresistible. The police and most other agencies who
have offered support for this scheme have indicated that the main benefits
they anticipate from it would only arise if people were required to carry and
show the card at all times. The fact that such a step would require further
primary legislation would be a minor obstacle. After all, this Government
thinks nothing of introducing several police and criminal justice bills a session.
No common law country has ever introduced compulsory ID cards
successfully in peacetime. Australia, New Zealand and the USA have
considered such proposals but ended by rejecting them. The common law we
all share is built on the presumption of innocence. No one can require us to
justify our existence or our presence. The state and the police are our
servants not our masters. They answer to us, not us to them. The attitudes
embedded in and fostered by this tradition make people in Anglo-Saxon
countries very wary of giving too much power to the state.
But how does a compulsory ID card affect our liberties in practical terms?
Surely carrying an extra piece of plastic would be no threat to those who have
nothing to hide?
There is every difference in the world between cards we carry voluntarily and
being compelled to carry one. If you forget your credit card it is an
inconvenience. But once it is compulsory to carry your ID card, every time
you step out of your home without it you would commit an offence. If you fail
to notify the government of a change of address you would be liable to a fine
of up to ?1,000. If you fail to report that you have lost it you could be fined
another ?1,000. If you refuse to go along to register and have your irises
scanned your finger prints taken and your face photographed you can be
fined ?2,500. Even though the card would probably not help catch a single
villain it would bring many thousands of absentminded, forgetful and
obstinately private people into conflict with the law.
Moreover, compulsory ID cards threaten people?s privacy. The central
computer will retain an audit trail of every time and place the card has been
checked. The card itself is to be a smart card capable of containing an
increasing amount of information in future ? for example, the holder?s medical
history. Many fear that, however smart the card, there will be smarter
hackers who will be able to read its contents.
The reluctance of other common law countries to introduce compulsory ID
cards has lessons for Britain. Even post 9/11 when the US has accepted
some quite draconian measures it has ruled out making Americans possess
and carry an ID card.
Such a scheme was, however, formally proposed in New Zealand in the early
1990s. The proposed “Kiwi Card? was sold to the voters with much the same
language as New Labour: it would be an “entitlement card? rather than an
“identity card?; it would not be an encroachment on civil liberties; it would help
tackle crime and tax evasion. The proposal was widely opposed and in the
end a simple card for health benefits only ? explicitly not a compulsory identity
card ? was introduced.
The most telling example, however, is Australia. In 1986, the Australian
Labour government proposed an “Australia card? to be carried by all citizens
and which was to be necessary for opening a bank account, obtaining social
security benefits, obtaining health care, and immigration and passport control
purposes. Like the UK, opposition was initially muted, and the government
demonised those who opposed the scheme as “friends of tax cheats?. With
some courage, the Opposition raised the matter in the Senate and managed
to obtain the appointment of a Joint Select Committee.
In the meantime, an unlikely coalition of right wingers, civil liberties groups
and concerned citizens began to mobilise. Gradually the opinion polls, which
had initially showed 80 per cent of people in favour of the scheme, began to
shift as the detail of the scheme began clear and as its impact began to enter
the public consciousness.
A report from the Joint Select Committee raised numerous concerns about the
proposals, leading to a further swing in opinion. A feeling emerged that the
project was “un-Australian?, and street demonstrations began to take place
Eventually the polls showed that 90 per cent were against the cards and the
Government abandoned the plan. It contributed to the fall of the Labour
There are clear lessons here for Britain?s Conservatives. First, there is
nothing inevitable about ID cards in the UK. There is a long road between
now and their compulsory adoption. As yet there has been little public focus
on the plan but, as the debate progresses, public concerns will rise.
Second, as was the case in Australia, this is a plan which is profoundly
contrary to British traditions and British values. It involves high costs in
exchange for uncertain benefits. And it introduces into our contract between
individual and state a reversal of the notion that the state is the servant rather
than the master of the individual: henceforth, the individual may not even go
peaceably about his or her business without the risk of falling foul of the law.