September 2008

The UK Foreign ID card: Terrorism deterrent or just a soft target?

UK Foreign ID card

In late September Home Secretary Jacqui Smith unveiled plans for the first UK identity card for foreign citizens. The move has sparked widespread criticism with suggestions of double motives and brazen xenophobia rife among some sections of the media. Labour’s hardy following will be tearing their hair out. Already lagging in the polls, and in the midst of an economic crisis it’s a reckless decision by the government to plunder an estimated £351 million on the short-term project.

The Home Office argues that the introduction of an identity card for foreign nationals will tackle ‘human trafficking organised immigration crime, illegal working and benefit fraud.’ Businesses found employing illegal workers could be subject to imprisonment or fines while all migrants applying to leave or enter the UK will be required to have a card. From November, fingerprints will be taken at six centres across Britain as part of the process in deciding whether an ‘applicant’ deserves to stay. Ministers predict 90% of foreign nationals will have ID cards by 2015. However, the seemingly endless lists of positives are not as clear-cut as they seem. Many of the benefits will only be recognised when the personal details of large numbers of the British population are stored in a national register, and biometrics hits the mainstream. That’ll be the National Identity Scheme then.

While Jacqui Smith and her cronies continue to laud the brilliant potential of the foreign citizen card, the underlying belief is that the Home Office is bracing the United Kingdom for the roll-out of National Identity cards. It has worked elsewhere, in France for example, 90% of the population carries one. Despite delaying the introduction of ID cards until 2012 Labour is still as committed to the cause as they ever have been. The Home Office said the ID scheme would be £1 billion cheaper than originally planned, and disastrously promoted the supposed benefits in the hope that the project will be ‘consumer led’ – with people signing up voluntarily rather than being dragged kicking and screaming. Needless to say the plan didn’t work. Not helped by Revenue and Custom’s loss of 25 million personal details, public support for ID cards is at an all time low.

The government’s appalling record of data protection, combined with fears of infringements of civil rights and privacy intrusion have led many citizens, including the Tories and Liberal Democrats to strongly oppose the idea. Phil Booth, Director of NO2ID said, “The government is picking on soft targets, People who have no choice but to comply. They are using vulnerable members of our society, like foreign nationals who do not have the vote, as guinea pigs for a deeply unpopular and unworkable policy.”
It’s a pretty cynical piece of politics to pick on the foreign nationals first. This could easily backfire on Gordon Brown. There are fears that the cards will cause friction among ethnic minorities and force illegal immigrants into avoiding contact with hospitals and police. And let’s not forget the £30 initial fee for a stand-alone identity card.

The introduction of cards for foreign nationals will be closely followed by the first cards for British citizens, targeting workers in sensitive roles and locations such as airports. However trade unions and airport workers have protested claiming the cards will not improve airport safety. The initial targets of the compulsory foreign ID card are students, and partners of permanent residents. Jacqui Smith explained, “We want to be able to prevent those here illegally from benefiting from the privileges of Britain.” It’s difficult to comprehend how a potential illegal foreign student could possibly afford the £12,000 annual fees but fail to afford a visa. And it only gets worse for the student population. From 2010, all students will need biometric cards to apply for student loans, a move that has resulted in protests and marches organised across the country.

Another concern is that the miniscule number of foreign nationals involved in the scheme will have little effect in tackling immigration. Just 60,000 cards will be issued in the next six months to those hailing from outside the European Economic Area (EAA), although ministers expect this to rise to a million cards per year after the system is fully rolled out. The card cannot be issued to people from most parts of Europe as they have the right to move freely in and out of the UK. London’s School of Economics professor Dr Edgar Whitley believes for this reason the card may not be commercially viable saying,
“With the cards being issued to a relatively small number of individuals in the first place, its unlikely employers or universities will rush to invest in the necessary systems to perform formal checks.”

Home Office ministers expect to sign the key contracts to deliver the £4.7 billion national identity database next year. Officials said contracts would include compensation clauses if the project was unexpectedly cancelled but refused to say how much. EDS and Capita, who are rumoured to have already been promised consultancy jobs, must be licking their lips. The irony is Labour are likely to be unceremoniously removed from power by the time the 2010 election comes around, thus eliminating the chance of an identity register. Of course, the private contractors will still be paid in full.

The government have played it safe and opted not to roll out identity cards to anyone with a vote. The ‘plastic poll tax’ could undermine hundreds of years of civil rights and lead to racially incited discrimination and abuse. And while Labour are determined to push ahead with such a costly project in any way they can, it seems as if the ID project could make us less, not more, safe. So much for Brown’s ‘fair Britain’.

by Tom Tainton, Smart Card & Identity News


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