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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 3 July, 2002, 22:23 GMT 23:23 UK
Should Britain introduce ID cards?

  Click here to watch the forum.  

  • Click here to read the transcript


    Home Secretary David Blunkett faces opposition from his own backbenchers over plans to introduce entitlement cards for benefit claimants.

    A senior Labour backbencher David Winnick warned that there would be widespread political opposition to the card which many fear could lead to the compulsory identity card for everyone.

    Civil liberties groups have always resisted the idea of compulsory ID cards, which they see as an infringement of personal privacy.

    Would ID cards for everyone be a workable policy? Are they an encroachment on people's privacy?

    Our correspondent, Paul Reynolds put your questions to Tom Watson MP and Helen Disney, director of European relations at Civitas, the institute for the study of civil society in a live forum.


    Transcript


    Paul Reynolds:

    Hello, and welcome to this BBC interactive forum, with me, Paul Reynolds. The Home Secretary David Blunkett has been outlining in the House of Commons proposals for what he called entitlement cards. These would introduce a type of identity card in Britain which has attracted a lot of criticism from civil liberty groups and from each of the main parties.

    Mr Blunkett faced opposition after suggesting ID cards in the wake of the 11th September last year. He now says he'll hold consultations on these new proposals over the next six months. Ministers say they are neutral about the ideas and want to hear the public's opinions and this is where you come in.

    You've been sending us hundreds of questions on the issue of identity cards, indeed there's been a poll on-line: 10,000 people have voted so far: 65% have said they are in favour of identity cards in this country, 35% say no. Let's go straight to the Labour MP Tom Watson. He's a member of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. Here in the studio also is Helen Disney, Director of European Relations at Civitas, a group under the Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

    Tom, let's begin with a hostile question to you from Chris in England. Entitlement cards for benefit claimants? Just how daft and gullible does Blunkett think we are? This is the sinister army of state-control thinly disguised in the Trojan horse of a benign plastic card. What do you say to that?


    Tom Watson:

    Well I mean I do know why David Blunkett has launched this. It is a consultation and I think he is extremely aware that if we're going to make an entitlement card work there has to be a degree of public consensus on this.

    My personal view is that the Reader's Digest know more about us than the British state. And if we're going to go down the road of having an entitlement card, we need a full debate in the country to see what kind of benefit it can bring and crucially to reassure people that it's not going to cost the taxpayer a great deal of money to implement the system. So I think the question, obviously, was a hostile one but I would disagree with it.


    Paul Reynolds:

    He said the cost would be borne by paying more for your passport and your driving licence.


    Tom Watson:

    Yes, I think that's a fair comment. After all we do pay a fee to get a passport and to renew our passports and whenever you lose your licence you have to pay, physically lose your licence, you have to pay a small fee as well. So I think that's an appropriate way to look at the costs of funding the scheme.

    The one concern that I would say that backbenchers on both sides of the House would have is if we introduce a new piece of information technology that runs over budget and is late. And I think that the public would wish to be reassured that that won't be the case with an ID card system, should we go down that road.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Helen, you're against ID cards, aren't you? Let's put a question from Robin Ewart, here, he says we must learn to live in the current century and not always look at the negative. We should embrace all the best that can be available. Other countries can, so why can't we?


    Helen Disney:

    Well, it is true that other countries have identity cards but there's not actually a great deal of difference in the level of crime, or the level of benefit fraud between countries like the UK and Sweden and Norway, for example, which don't have ID cards, and the rest of Europe, which does. So I can't really see what the advantage is.

    There's a large cost to the taxpayer, which Tom Watson's just mentioned. It could be covered by extra charges for passports and driving licences, but it's still in the region of one to two billion pounds, according to most estimates. So, if we're going to spend that much money I need to be more convinced that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Do you think the real aim here is to hit at people at the lower end of society, illegal immigration, as you mentioned this would stop people from working illegally, claiming benefits, that kind of thing. That's the real target the government has in mind here?


    Helen Disney:

    Yes, I think there is a serious issue about illegal working, and also about benefit fraud. But, to be honest, I think a better way of spending the money would actually be to reduce the welfare bill by improving welfare to work schemes, and spending the money on better training and creating better work opportunities for people, rather than trying to reduce benefit fraud, which has been tried by successive governments for years and years and they've never really made any significant impact on the problem.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Tom, a question from Craig Goodwin. Instead of making the ID card compulsory (people will always complain about civil liberties), why not make it so useful that most people will want one voluntarily?


    Tom Watson:

    Well, those are the two options that Mr Blunkett has outlined in his consultation document. He specifically wants peoples' views on whether it should be compulsory or voluntary. My view is it should be voluntary. But it is, as your viewer said, we should make it very efficient. And the one thing Helen pointed out was the cost of the system.

    The one thing David Blunkett said in his presentation today was that there is a huge problem in Britain with people stealing identities. People defrauding us of our credit cards and our bank information, obtaining credit illegally, costs the taxpayer over a billion pounds a year. And having a verifiable identity I think would leave a lot more people feeling secure when they do things like internet transactions, for example.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Now, here's a question from Hannah in the UK and I think this goes to the heart of it. As a taxpayer, I'm sick of footing the bill for those who are bleeding the country dry and taking what they're not entitled to. I have nothing to hide so I can see nothing against owning an ID card. Bring it on! Isn't that the real aim of the government here? To get at people who are here illegally, or claiming benefit fraudulently?


    Tom Watson:

    Well, there's no doubt about it. An ID card would allow us to tackle organised crime, which in the last decade has gone into housing benefit fraud in quite a big way, it costs us billions of pounds in social security fraud in Britain, and this is one way of attacking that organised crime. But I think the real issue is the great technology gains we've made in the last ten years.

    When this was last looked at by the Conservative government in the 90s the project was shelved because people thought that they could not, you couldn't guarantee someone's secure identity. That there'd be widespread fraud, that there would be fake identities going around in a paper system. Of course we've got the technologies now that allow us to secure peoples' identity.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Helen, back to you. From Peets in the UK. The arguments against ID cards are spurious, services already have enough unique tags to trace us all (National Insurance, your credit card and bank account). However, with a national ID we can start fighting the absolutely ridiculous amount of fraud in the UK system. Two points there, one is that we already carry huge amounts of information with us. And second, it would help against fraud in all kinds of forms. He complains, for example, about being given a fake driving licence after an accident.


    Helen Disney:

    Well I think there's two points there. One is that if somebody's motivated enough, particularly somebody of a terrorist point of view, or somebody who is a criminal, they're going to have just as much motivation and just as much sophisticated technology in order to reproduce an ID card, as they would to reproduce a passport or a driving licence.

    So I think every time you get new technology you get new forms of crime. We know people can clone mobile telephones, we know people can defraud somebody's credit card. There's no reason why a terrorist or a criminal couldn't reproduce an ID card. So I don't think it will actually reduce crime. I think it may actually extend it.

    And the second problem is that a lot of benefit fraud is not actually from people impersonating somebody else's identity, it's simply that they're lying about their circumstances. So, for example, somebody may claim that they are unemployed but are actually working cash in hand. I don't see how an ID card will get around the problem of employers who are prepared to pay somebody cash in hand, knowing that they are working illegally.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Here's one from Adrian in Belgium. And in Belgium you do have to carry an ID card. I remember registering in Belgium and a policeman arrived on a bicycle the next day to check that the information we'd given was true. It's a kind of police state. And I think a lot of Brits don't like that idea.

    But Adrian in Belgium says as an ex-pat Brit living there, I don't know what the fuss is all about. He's lived in Frankfurt in Germany as well. In both countries it's mandatory to have an ID card in your possession at all times. Isn't this something that really gets at the tradition in this country and the United States that we are free citizens, we do not have to ask the government, and we do not have to register with the government?


    Helen Disney:

    Yes, I think that's a fundamental point. I don't like the idea that this is just going to be another layer of bureaucracy, another way for the government to potentially intrude into people's lives, who are just happily going about their business. And actually potentially criminalise innocent people. If you go out to walk the dog and you forget to take your ID card with you, you could be prosecuted for that. So, it's actually more likely to create more problems than it solves, in my view.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Tom, let's put that point to you about the fundamental freedoms. It's all very well, you've dressed it up in a lot of bureaucratic language, but Brits on the whole don't like ID cards. We had them in the war, we got rid of them in 1952, why do we now need them?


    Tom Watson:

    Actually the Brits that I talk to out in the country seem favourable to ID cards. And certainly our poll is indicating that. But I do agree with Helen, and Adrian, when they say that to be obliged to carry an ID card around with you at all times does go against Brit culture. We don't like that, we think it's petty, we think it's silly, and I was very pleased that David Blunkett actually ruled that option out. He's not saying there'll be a compulsory card that you have to carry and the police can stop you in the street at any time and ask you to show that.

    I think those days are gone and this has been a bit of a red herring when it comes to this debate. The real issue about entitlement cards is that we can verify who we are and where we live if we need to, to obtain goods and services from the state and from the market. So we've got the technology now, and it's time we had the debate as well.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What does it actually mean, goods and services? You go to a hospital and you haven't got your card, you're not seriously saying they're not going to treat you?


    Tom Watson:

    No, of course not.


    Paul Reynolds:

    So, what's the point of having a card?


    Tom Watson:

    What David Blunkett is saying is that for many areas of life now you have to produce some form of identity and I've just picked up my travellers' cheques for my summer holiday, I had to display


    Paul Reynolds:

    That's a voluntary act by you.


    Tom Watson:

    Well, it's a voluntary act but I wouldn't get my travellers' cheques if I couldn't display who I was. In his speech today he said let's consider wrapping them all up into one card. People are sick of carrying their driving licence, their passport, all sorts of proof of age cards, there's all sorts of schemes from our local authorities. If we can wrap it up into one system then people might actually feel happier with that. I don't think we need to be worried about doing that sort of thing.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Let's come back to you, then, Helen. Peter Borcherds, maybe I'm mistaken but aren't driving licences already a form of ID card? I don't understand all the fuss. From Wong in Australia, I don't understand why some of your countrymen and women would object to ID cards. Come on, this is the 21st century. Most of the rest of the world have accepted them. So these are the people in the majority of our poll, really. It comes back to the practicality in the modern world of carrying something, which Tom said, you've got it all in one card, you perhaps could get rid of some of those cards in your wallet or in your purse. Isn't it practical and convenient?


    Helen Disney:

    I can see that it would be quite convenient, yet on the other hand if you start to rely on one single form of ID the potential for fraud may be greater. At the moment we're expected in most situations where you need to prove your ID to show several forms. So that people can actually cross-check that you are the person you say you are. If you have one form of ID card which can potentially be copied by a criminal, then there's less checks and balances on your identity. I also think that carrying something like a driving licence is a voluntary act. You don't have to drive, if you want to drive you have to prove that you are safe to drive, to show that you've taken a test.

    But that's very different from saying, you know, every time you want to transact with the government for a public service you've got to produce this card. I thought the Labour government were in favour of universal access to public services. Free at the point of delivery. If you want to use the NHS or have education provided by the state then surely the fact that you are a British citizen and you turn up to get the treatment or the education should be enough, you shouldn't have to prove yourself again by showing a card.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What about that point, Tom? You shouldn't have to keep on proving yourself. You are a citizen, you have a right.


    Tom Watson:

    I think Helen does make a valid point. You have to provide more than one piece of information now for cross-checking. There's no verifiable, secure way of proving who you say you are in Britain. And there is wholesale fraud of peoples' identity. When it comes to providing goods and services, of course, how do we know that fraud is not greater in the system?

    My own personal suspicion is that there is organised crime in the public sector and ID cards would help to iron that out. I don't think it's a big deal to go and produce a card that says, this is my driving licence, this is my passport, it says I'm who I say I am, I live here. Now can I have the services that I deserve as a taxpayer? And Helen did say it's a voluntary act, but there are 38 million driving licence carriers in Britain and 44 million passport holders, so it's nearly the whole of the population anyway.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What's going to go on these cards? You see, Ed in the UK says an argument often put forward by the pro-ID card people, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. This all depends on what you mean by nothing to hide. What if the government decides they want to know your political affiliations or how much money you earn? What's going to go on that chip?


    Tom Watson:

    Well if they wanted to do that, obviously I would be opposed to it. But the sort of thing, and this is open for debate, that's why we're having a consultation. But the sort of things I'd like to see on the card, other than your name and address, is your driving information, your passport information, whether you've got any essential medical conditions.

    Perhaps if you're diabetic or asthmatic, or you want to carry an organ donor card. You can wrap these up, we've got the technologies now. With bio-metric technology, which is also subject to the consultation, you can be pretty certain that the information on your card is secure and only the appropriate people get access to it.


    Paul Reynolds:

    What about things like criminal convictions? Driving record?


    Tom Watson:

    Well, they're carried on your licence now anyway, and you have to declare them for getting insurance and other things. So I don't think people will be too worried if it was points on your licence for a speeding fine. But, certainly I don't think we need to go down the road, and there's no intention of going down the road of providing personal financial information or sensitive personal data that your viewer mentioned.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Helen, supposing that one of these cards is going to come in, what do you think should be in that chip?


    Helen Disney:

    Well, I think we have to think very carefully about what's going to be on it. For example, one of the big problems might be if we had an address field on the card. It would be very expensive and time-consuming for the government to keep that record. Many people change the place where they live every six months, particularly people in cities or people who move around for their work. I mean there's all kinds of issues like that and in particularly the issue of criminal convictions. We've seen in other countries where they have ID cards, particularly, some research that was done in Germany showed that ethnic minorities were targeted more heavily, particularly young males, than other members of the population, if that kind of information is on the card then it runs the risk of people being stigmatised.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Would you mind carrying a card? Supposing you did it voluntarily, would it worry you, that you would do this?


    Helen Disney:

    I personally would mind carrying a card. I think the difficulty with the voluntary system is that once a large proportion of the population carry it, you then become stigmatised if you don't. So you may as well, the government will then say well we may as well move to a compulsory system, so it's really just a step on the road to a compulsory system.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Isn't that a fair point, Tom, you start voluntary and then inevitably the way governments work always, it doesn't work very well, not enough people volunteer, so you're volunteered?


    Tom Watson:

    The system we've got now is voluntary. And you can't, as I said earlier, you can't get travellers' cheques without a passport, you can't book into a hotel, in many hotels in this country now, unless you carry a credit card. So, I think if market providers are saying you must have an ID card, then that's up to the market. I think it's not appropriate for the government to oblige people, but in this day and age where there is wholesale fraud, where people impersonate each other, we're actually making people more secure in going about their lives. I don't think there's anything to worry about by that.

    I certainly wouldn't mind carrying a card. I would mind being obliged to carry a card because, as Helen said, I'm a very forgetful person, there's lots of people out there who might forget to carry their card and I don't think we should make criminals of them for being forgetful. But certainly in terms of getting goods and services there's no problem with rolling a card into one and providing it doesn't cost too much money, then let's go for it.


    Paul Reynolds:

    Well Chris Turner in Sheffield is objecting to the name entitlement card. Why don't the government call them entitlement cards? Do they really think we are so stupid that we don't realise what they are? I have no problem with them so long as they are called by their proper name. Which I presume he means ID cards. And you've been emphasising identity, so why don't you call them identity, why do you slip it in as entitlement cards?


    Tom Watson:

    I'm not hung up about the name. This has been raised before. ID card, I think what David Blunkett is trying to say is it's not solely to verify your name and address. It doesn't just show where you live and who you are. There are more added benefits to the card he's talking about. And I notice he is now using the word universal entitlement card. And that seems fair enough to me but if people aren't happy with the name, let's change the name. I don't think we should get hung about terms.


    Paul Reynolds:

    OK, S Warhurst in England, finally, to you Helen. Why should having a national identity card be so difficult to accept? The majority of people probably rarely ever have to show it to anyone. He, or she, mentions under age drinking for example. This is a big problem all around the world, under age drinking. In America they have voluntary systems. Here, this would help in practical ways identifying who was overage, who was underage.


    Helen Disney:

    I agree it could help with underage drinking and a number of other things like credit card fraud. But I don't think that the cost, the huge practical difficulties implementing such a system, and the threat to our privacy and our individual liberty is worth the sacrifice. That's my view.

    I just think that we don't have a constitutional right to privacy in this country and it would be very easy for a government, I'm not saying this government necessarily, but a government with the wrong type of intentions to misuse that type of information and I think it's a dangerous road to go down. It's not really justified - we already have plenty of types of other ID that we can use, passport, you know it couldn't be simpler. So why bring in another thing that's just going to make life more complicated and more bureaucratic?


    Paul Reynolds:

    OK, well the great debate has started on ID cards, entitlement cards, whatever you want to call them. My thanks to Tom Watson MP, and to Helen, and to all of you who sent in your comments and questions. You can continue to send and contribute to the online debate by visiting the website of course, bbc.co.uk. From me Paul Reynolds, good bye.


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     VOTE RESULTS
    Should Britain introduce ID cards?

    Yes
     56.60% 

    No
     43.40% 

    2470 Votes Cast

    Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

    Links to more Talking Point stories are at the foot of the page.


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