BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 09.06.02

Film: DAVID GROSSMAN reports that despite the practical difficulties and political dangers of identity cards the Government has significant backbench support for the introduction of entitlement cards which would, in effect, be identity cards.

DAVID GROSSMAN: Faces in a crowd - Britons have historically guarded their right to anonymity - not for us that strange continental inconvenience the identity card. But now the government is looking at introducing a type of ID card - they call it an entitlement card. Designed to show who's allowed to work, receive state benefits and NHS treatment. If it happens, they promise we won't have to carry one all the time and we won't be stopped on the street and asked to produce it. If we do end up with an ID card or entitlement card - what's the big deal. After all many of the people hurrying around this station are probably carrying whole decks of plastic cards in their wallets and purses - what's one more to add to the collection. Well critics of ID cards say they're different, they'll erode fundamental liberties and increase the power of the state over people's lives, whilst not actually achieving what supporters of ID cards say they can - a reduction in crime, illegal working and benefit fraud. MARK LITTLEWOOD: Identity cards are a solution looking for a problem. The government has changed its mind continually about whether this is a way of combating terrorism, combating benefit fraud, or combating illegal immigration. It's none of those things. It's simply a very serious threat to British liberty and our concepts of privacy here in the United Kingdom. NEWSREEL ACTUALITY: GROSSMAN: Britain had ID cards for thirteen years during and after the war. But got rid of them in 1952. NEWSREEL ACTUALITY: GROSSMAN: Now many MPs want to bring them back, to deal with what they say is another national emergency. One of the reasons the government says an ID card or entitlement card could be invaluable is in reducing fraud in the benefits system. At present the Government estimates that fraud and overpayment in Jobseekers Allowance and Income Support costs the taxpayer over 1.3 billion pounds a year. But for what could be the biggest area of fraud - Housing Benefit - the government has no idea. Nor does the Health Service know how many people are using NHS treatment to which they're not entitled. FRANK FIELD MP: How do we know that all those who are wheeling up for treatment are actually residents of this country. How many are actually registering the medical needs of families elsewhere in the world and then actually having the advantages of then accessing the NHS. And a entitlement card would put a stop to all of that, so of course it's right to look in the benefit area and of course it's right as well to look at the fraud that is committed by individuals against the NHS. GROSSMAN: But would having an entitlement card and knowing who everyone is, actually save the taxpayer huge amounts of money? The government's privacy watchdog - the Information Commissioner is sceptical. ELIZABETH FRANCE: One of the whole areas of fraud that would not be addressed, is where I give accurate information as to my identity, but make up the information in relation to my circumstances. Whether I'm working or not, whether I've got investment income or not, those sorts of pieces of information are not going to be dealt with by the issue of an identity or entitlement card. LITTLEWOOD: There are a whole plethora of different identity card and entitlement card schemes in place across the European Union. Britain's fairly unusual in not having a scheme in place and the level of fraud that exists there is pretty much the same as it is here and in some cases in fact, higher than it is here. So the actual evidence before our eyes, of countries, similar to ours, similar benefit schemes to ours, with an identity card in place, is that it doesn't work. GROSSMAN: Early morning in North London and groups of men wait in the hope of picking up cash in hand work. These people are illegal migrants, lured here many believe by the lax labour laws they're now trying to exploit. The introduction of an entitlement card showing who can work legally would, say its supporters, help stem the flow of economic migrants. CLIVE SOLEY MP: If for example someone was here unlawfully and let's say they'd come in on the.. hung on to the underside of a train or whatever, let's say they got themselves established in a job, again, which they could do very easily at the moment, they wouldn't....that wouldn't be quite so easy if you had the card, JOHN REDWOOD MP: When it comes to illegal working, we have a National Insurance system. Everyone who works in this country is meant to have a National Insurance number, we know that some people don't, they break the rules on National Insurance, both employers and employees, those same people would doubtless break the rules if they had to show an identity card, how would it solve the problem, because the problem is one of enforcement, not of a system. GROSSMAN: The government says that if we do have an entitlement card it won't be compulsory, but supporters believe that it will become so useful as to be indispensable. FIELD: It would be an opting in system, rather than a compulsory system, but the vast majority of people will opt in and will want to opt in very, very quickly, and those who somehow think there's a huge issue of principle here, will have to continue to claim their entitlements under the existing system, and that anybody who knows, under the existing system, how long it takes, will I think cure people of that enthusiasm in a very short space of time. REDWOOD: Well I think there is a danger that once they'd established a toe hold with identity cards for certain purposes they'd want to go on to make them all singing, all dancing and the presumption might grow up that if you weren't prepared to carry them or use them on a regular basis, there was something wrong with you. Well, I resent that implication. GROSSMAN: But how do you stop any new card being forged or used by someone else. The answer comes straight out of science fiction - the electronic scanning of our physical characteristics. This kind of device is not only now a reality but in daily use in hundreds of companies. This card holds an electronic record of my fingerprint and many believe it's this kind of technology, in the jargon biometrics, that holds the key to making sure that any new national identity or entitlement card is secure. That the people who carry them, are who they say they are. Britain already has biometric cards. Some asylum applicants are now fingerprinted, the information stored on a card. Many supporters of entitlement cards believe this technology should now be extended to everyone in the country. FIELD: As babies are born there should be a biometric test to establish their unique identity and that should be the beginnings of their personal number, which at the moment, first of all becomes a Child Benefit number and is then converted into a National Insurance number. GROSSMAN: Biometric technology doesn't stop at fingerprints. This machine scans the eye, but even some supporters of ID cards don't like the idea of going down too far down this route. SOLEY: You can make cards almost guaranteed unforgeable, for example if you use the eye retina, DNA or finger prints whatever. But at that level, you've becoming incredibly intrusive and I think you would lose a lot of public support, and I would certainly be a bit worried about that, I think, if you, to access your rights for example, you had to give a DNA test, that would be pretty scary. GROSSMAN: The government department looking into identity cards if the Home Office. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, says they're going to publish a consultation document before Parliament breaks up for the summer recess. But, if they do go ahead with the idea, the effects could be felt right across government. Once a smart entitlement card is introduced there's potentially a huge amount of information that could be stored on it: tax, benefits, criminal driving and health records all on one little card. But hang on, there are some very strict rules about government departments sharing around our personal records, the Data Protection Act for a start. The woman appointed to police that act, the Information Commissioner, says the safest way of guaranteeing our privacy is to make sure that only the bare minimum of information is actually stored on any entitlement or identity card and certainly not to have a single common government database. FRANCE: My preference would be for a card that actually holds very little information, except the information necessary to say that I am who I say I am. Then the information within each separate organisation is unlocked by that information, but the information itself wouldn't necessarily be held in the card. GROSSMAN: We still don't know exactly what type of card the government's thinking about - but it's important when plans are published they contain a clear vision of exactly what a card will do and how it will do it. FRANCE: When we take on, if we do, a card, we must each accept that we are in taking a card, giving up some of our privacy, some of our right to anonymity, something we pride ourselves on in a democracy. We're all prepared to do that, if in return there's some benefit for society, that we can see is worth our making that trade for. But then we have to have in front of us an honest statement of what will actually be achieved, rather than a lot of broad statements about preventing crime, preventing terrorism, preventing truancy which may or may not be addressed depending on the nature of the card the information to be held - who will have access to it. FIELD: Although it's right to emphasise these ancient liberties which we have, I don't think you ought to over-do it, that the vast majority of people who would sign up to those statements, will also quite happily sign up to a card which establishes their identity. That most of them will carry it with them, most of the time and practically all of them would expect that you would be made to use them when you're establishing your identity, to take money away from taxpayers. GROSSMAN: Would Britain be a different place with an identity or entitlement card? Well that really depends on what's proposed and who would really benefit - the citizen or the government?
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.