The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee met at 2.30 pm on Tuesday 10 February in the Thatcher Room, Portcullis House. They heard evidence from Martin Hall, Director General, Finance and Leasing Association; Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the Local Government Association; and Jan Berry, Chairman, the Police Federation on Identity Cards.
The uncorrected transcript of this session is now available online on the Parliament website, eventually.
The BBC Parliament TV channel broadcast this session on Sunday 15th February 2004 staring at 18:00.
Our impressions of the session:
As the Chairman John Denham summarised, each of the organisations which gave evidence were broadly supportive of the idea of a National ID scheme, but they all wanted something at odds with the vague Home Office plans so far presented.
Finance and Leasing Association:
They represent the companies who lend some ?60 billion a year, and who lobbied so hard to be allowed to retain access to the Electoral Roll, after the case in Wakefield where a voter won his case in court that it was not illegal for him to refuse to register to vote, because it was illegal for his local council to sell his electoral roll details to direct marketing/spam companies. This lead to the creation of 2 Electoral Rolls, one with full details for electoral purposes, the other, with fewer details of those people who "opt out".
These lenders rely on the the 3 main Credit Reference Agencies to gather this Electoral Roll data, and they would want them to have access to the Central ID Database for similar reasons, something which is not explicitly allowed for just yet in the Home Office's vague plans.
They estimate that the Credit Reference Agencies do around 100 to 150 million Credit Checks a year, largely without the person being checked being physically present, as implied by the use of Biometrics.
They do not see Biometrics as necessary for the Finance Industry.
They have some concern over costs of Biometric readers, for which the Home Office has provided no figures,and recognise that in many cases, e.g. over the phone these would be useless anyway. They have other security measures in place e.g. ultraviolet light checking of Driving Licences by car dealers or "Chip and PIN" credit card terminals etc. which would not be replaced by Biometrics.
Provided that the Credit Reference Agencies are allowed access to the Central ID Register, they would be willing to pay a few pence per lookup, but assume that there would be a quid pro quo arrangement for the use of their existing databases in verifying and checking the accuracy of the Central ID Register.
They do not see Identity Fraud as the main type of fraud or loss to their members.
Martin Hall agreed that existing databases like the DVLA are not good enough, and that since there are far more National Insurance Numbers than people in the UK, that "something has gone wrong there".
They would welcome the linking of the Central ID Register to the Births and Deaths register, but the Committee did not pursue this, or the fact that it is not actually clear from the Home Office and Office of National Statistics if this will happen or not.
When asked if the ID Card scheme was vital to their current security efforts, the answer was no, they are "waiting hopefully rather than anxiously" for the ID Card scheme,
Local Government Association:
The LGA welcome e-government joined up government data sharing between Central Government departments, and welcome a Central Identifier Number, which is what the LGA really would like to see.
They question the need for an ID Card per se, at all, provided that there is a Central Identifier Number.
Compared with some of the Local Authority Smart Card projects already in existance, they are disappointed that the Home Office plans revealed so far seem to be so low tech i.e. there is no provision for extra Local Government services to be added to the ID Card such as stored Electronic Monetary Value (EMV) to replace cash transactions for everything from Library Book Fines, to Swimming Pool fees or Car Parking fees.
They would welcome a single Smart Card to reduce the proliferation of such devices that one has to carry.
They are not supportive of a Compulsory ID Card scheme, on the grounds that they feel it would have a negative effect on social cohesion, especially in marginal or ethnic communities. The different likelyhoods of ID Cards being demanded during "Stop and Search" operations by the police, between say "a middle aged white woman on the Isle of Wight" and a "black male youth in Brixton" was mentioned.
They see some marginal use for a Biometric ID Card for fighting Housing Benefit fraud, but this would not address the major frauds in this area which involve the collusion of landlords.
They feel that a non-Biometric ID card would be of no practical use , i.e. photo ID cards would be forged.
Councillor Vernon-Jackson raised a wry smile from John Denham, the Chairman of the Committee, when he said that for these latter points, he preferred to rely on the advice of the people on the ground in Housing Benefit offices in Portsmouth where he is leader of the Council, rather than the Local Government Association people in Smith Square, who do feel that there may be a use in fighting such frauds.
They do not spend that much time checking ID's, but would tend to do so where there is a lot of public money involved e.g. Housing Benefit or Council Tax, but not for less financially risky services such as Public Library registration.
They raised the practical difficulties of registration and change of address, and re-issue of cards, saying that 40% of the electoral roll in London changes every year, and up to 25% in cities like Southampton, and this does not, of course reflect the total number of people who move address each year.
They cast doubts on the idea that any system could ever monitor the the 10 % of people at the margins of society, especially extreme cases such as illegal immigrants or travelling people.
It was interesting that Councillor Vernon-Jackson stated that there were areas where the 2001 Census data was currently not being used, presumably due to inaccuracy and people's fears of central government. N.B. It is illegal for non-anonymised Census Data to be shared with the Police or anyone else under penalty of 2 years in jail - there are no such criminal sanctions for abuse of the ID Card system in the Home Office plans so far.
When asked by David Winnick MP for Walsall North, about the topical question of the Morecombe Bay Chinese slave labourer deaths, and the remarks made by the Home Secretary David Blunket, Councillor Vernon-Jackson reminded the Commmittee that there were people who did not interact with the state at all, but who have an effect on the rest of society. He gave the example of Tubercolosis, an outbreak of which is current in the Portsmouth area - we want all of the carriers or victims to seek medical treatment for the benefit of themeselves and for the rest of us, given the contagious nature of the disease, no matter if they are legal or illegal residents. Using an ID Card to deny or discourage these people access to such medical treatment would be counterproductive.
This caused John Denham to defend the principle of the ID Card somewhat.
The LGA do feel that they would be willing to play a valuable role in the Registration and Enrollment and Issuing of Biometric ID Cards, as they have offices all over the country, and because "local authorities are less threatening than central government", a comment which raised laughs around the Committee.
Councillor Vernon-Jackson raised the issue of whether a Central ID Database actually neeeds to be central in London or whether it could be distributed locally, given today's computer and telecommunications technology, although he said that there were arguements both for and against this approach, including security.
Councillor Vernon-Jackson felt that if there was over ?3 billion of Government money available, then it could be better spent on social housing and other community projects of direct benefit to the public.
The Police Federation represents the lower ranks of the Police force.
They welcome the idea of a Biometric ID Card.
They feel that the true benefits would only ensue when the ID Card was made Compulsory.
They want the ID Card to be made compulsory to carry, a measure which even the Home Secretary David Blunkett has, up till now, ruled out.
They also do not think that a photo ID card would be adequate and want to see more than one Biometric Identifier used.
The Committee did not pursue the questions about multiple Biometrics e.g. how will a police officer react if you happen to "fail" one Biometric Identifier test but not the other ? Will you still be treated as suspiciously as if you had failed both of them ?
They reject the idea that there would be an increase in "Stop and Search" or that there would be a real effect on race relations as a result, rather than an increase in people claiming that there would be such an increase.
Jan Berry said that an ID Card could provide an audit trail of excessive "Stop and Search" incidents.
The Committee did not pursue this topic, which presupposes that police officers actually report all "Stop and Search" incidents, or that they have to digitally sign the new Stop and Search forms, or that the audit trail of the usage of a Biometric ID Card is actually available to the individual to use as evidence of abuse by petty officials.
On the question posed by John Denham of whether an Address was actually necessary on an ID card, given the Biometrics, Jan Berry did not have much to say (check the official transcript later). The practical difficulties and stigma of a system of Address Change notifications almost equivalent to the Violent or Sexual Offender's Register applied to the whole population was not pursued by the Committee.
The Police Federation seem to be keen on the idea of mobile or portable equipment which could be used by police officers in the field (possibly via their Tetra radio links), thereby saving trips to the police station with a suspect for identification purposes.
Jan Berry said that she had been advised that such mobile technology was now available, certainly for fingerprints, although she was not so sure about iris scans.
John Denham did point out that the AFIS fingerprint system had cost tens of millions of pounds and was still not available in every Police station.
N.B. this is a claim which needs to be investigated, who has actually seen secure mobile / portable combined fingerprint and iris scanning equipment anywhere ? This seems like vapourware and wishful thinking.
There was mention of the Essex nightclub scheme which uses fingerprints to register and identify club goers.
N.B. the owner of this nightclub is reported as being unhappy with the scheme. How can the "experience" of a simple local, private company fingerprint database for a few hundred people be extrapolated to a national database of 60 million people ?
Mention was also made of a scheme in North Somerset, but this fingerprint system was pointed out by John Denham to be only a recording of fingerprints on cheques, for evidence after any misuse, rather than a real time identification scheme.
There have been some consultations by the Police Federation with their counterparts in other European countries with ID card schemes, none of which employ a Biometric Smart Card like the Home Office plan. The feed back from these European police was that they were suprised that the question of wether or not to have an ID card scheme even arose, they could not imagine working without one. The Committee did not choose to pursue the obvious question as to why these countries have do not have a better grip on terrorism, illegal immigration etc. with their ID card schemes than we do in the UK without such a scheme.
Jan Berry did concede that Identification was not the major concern of police officers, but was still keen on the Home Office scheme nevertheless.
On whether it was better to spend the ?3 billion plus on other things, the Police Federation were "always grateful for any money spent", but felt that the ID card scheme would be better than the present system.