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MPs approve ID cards, but some details 'unacceptable'

The Home Affairs Select Committee has published a majority report that approves, in principle, Government plans for an identity card – but warns of serious shortcomings in the detail of the proposals, and finds some elements of the Government's draft legislation "unacceptable".30 Jul 2004

The comprehensive database which supports the ID Card has come in for particular criticism, especially from the Information Commissioner, in further details also released today.

The Committee concludes that the ID card scheme should make a real and important contribution to the fight against organised crime and terrorism by disrupting the use of multiple identities, identity fraud and related crimes like money laundering.

However, the Committee criticises the fact that most of the detail of how the scheme will operate is either left to unspecified future regulations or drafted in general terms.

OUT-LAW has obtained an advanced copy of the report, which will become available to the public later today. In it, the Committee is clear about its reservations and states:

"While the draft Bill undoubtedly enables [...] actions to be taken in the fight against serious crime or terrorism, it allows far wider access to the database than this justifies. In particular, given the lack of clarity about the aims of the identity card, to leave so much to secondary legislation is unacceptable."

The Committee acknowledges that the scheme will make it easier to establish entitlement to public services and to prevent abuse and, potentially, help with joined up government. But it repeats its concerns about the detail:

"It is unacceptable that basic questions about the degree of access to the National Identity Register should be left to secondary legislation.

The Committee recognised that the scheme would change the relationship between citizen and state but concluded that ID cards should not be ruled out on the grounds of principle alone. The test, said the Committee, should be whether the costs are proportionate to the benefits - and it implies that they could be.

So its main concern is not the introduction of ID cards; rather, it's that the draft Bill goes much further than necessary to introduce a simple system to establish and demonstrate identity.

For instance, the Government's bill does not make it clear what the purpose of the ID Card scheme is. The Committee recommends that "Clause 1 should set out the aims of the scheme". It suggests suitable wording might be: "to enable an individual to identify himself in order to gain access to public and private services or when required to identify himself for the purposes of law enforcement".

Such wording, says the report, "would establish a test against which the data to be stored and used could be tested."

It continues: "It would also guard against the type of function creep in which the state uses the register to identify individuals without amendment by Parliament."

The report also suggests that the scheme misses the opportunity for joined up Government, particularly in view of the ongoing Citizen Information Project, which will create a database to act as a UK population register. The Committee says it does not want a single central database, but suggests that identity cards should enable access to all Government databases.

Committee Chairman John Denham MP said:

"This ID card scheme should go ahead but the Government must take serious note of the criticism we make of the way the plan is being developed.

"The draft Bill must be strengthened, and clear statutory limits placed on the use of the national identity register. The Bill creates, for example, a statutory national fingerprint register. This is a major step to take without any legal aim or purpose."

The Information Commissioner, in his evidence to the Home Office also published today, has expanded on concerns raised by the Committee.

He has written to the Home Secretary to say:

"Public debate now needs to extend well beyond the benefits and drawbacks of plastic ID cards. The current proposals involve a fundamental shift in the extent to which government collects, uses and shares personal information about individuals and – in some situations – about their activities."

He adds, "As the detail of this infrastructure – and the full magnitude of the proposals – start to emerge, my previous healthy scepticism has turned to increasing alarm".

He identified his major concerns as follows:

Continuing uncertainty about the lack of clear and limited statutory purposes for the proposals;

The nature and extent of the personal information which will be collected and retained;

Uncertainties and risks relating to administrative and technical arrangements;

The provisions relating to access to, and disclosure of, personal information stored on the National Identity Register;

The need for stronger independent oversight;

The absence of a "voluntary" option for driving licence and passport holders;

The loss of some initial safeguards as and when the scheme becomes compulsory;

The extent to which secondary legislation can be used to extend the scheme, thus fuelling anxieties about "function creep".

Not surprisingly, civil liberties groups and privacy campaigners have used the report to call upon Home Secretary David Blunkett to shelve his plans in the light of these criticisms. However, a Bill implementing ID Cards is expected in the next Queen's Speech.