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Identity minister interviewed on ID cards

Jonathan Schofield talks to Meg Hillier, the Home Office minister in charge of the ID card scheme being trialled in Manchester and asks why bother with it?

Written by . Published on January 20th 2010.

Identity minister interviewed on ID cards

Robert Cutforth wrote an article last week called 'Me and my ID Card' (click here). This got the attention of Parliament. Thus Meg Hillier, the Identity Minister, and MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, arranged a chat with the Confidential editor about the value of the voluntary ID cards trial in Manchester.

This is how it went.

CONFIDENTIAL: What was the reason behind the introduction of the ID card? Was it to prevent terrorism and make us safer?

MEG HILLIER: Security is part of the reason for the introduction. There were huge concerns around 9/11 and 7/7. The public, MPs and the media were raising security concerns. The ID cards were seen as part of the response to the attacks. Now they've developed into something with much broader uses, such as acting as a passport in the EU. It's also become a tool to make situations requiring proof of ID easier, from opening bank accounts to, interestingly, young people applying for the card so they can use it rather than a passport to get into nightclubs. We're seeing this in Manchester.

Of course, on the terrorism side we do face a real threat, I must emphasise this. Often not directly either but through criminal activity leading to money laundering to feed terrorism. Anything that makes those criminal activities more difficult is a good tool. The ID card is part of the measures we can take to guard against terrorist activity.

Also we need to modernise our travel documents, finger printing is at the forefront of that. Within ten years from 2012 all passports will have to have that data. These cards let you get ahead of that process and if you only intend travelling in the EU you only need pay £30 rather than £77.80 for a full passport – that's £3 a year for the ten years of the ID card's life.

CONFIDENTIAL: So how may the card be useful?

MEG HILLIER: You have a lot more control of your identity with your card. It will be easier to do lots of daily jobs. Thus to open a bank account now you will need to give the bank lots of information which they may not hold in a particularly secure manner. You have to trust the bank. When we have the technology in place, in banks and other organisations, your ID card will verify your details immediately. The bank isn't then storing vast amounts of your personal information.

CONFIDENTIAL: So where will the biometric and other information on the ID card be kept?

MEG HILLIER: It will be kept in a concrete bunker with military-style security. Only 100 people will ever have access to the data. There will be full physical, technical, and legal security and heavy prison sentences to back this up. You can also check up if people have tried to access your identity data and why.

CONFIDENTIAL: Which groups of people must obtain ID cards?

MEG HILLIER: Foreign nationals have to have them – and some companies may require their staff to have them. The cards for foreign nationals will contain information about length of stay in Britian and the amount of hours individuals are permitted to work per week. It's the next step in modernising the process of identifying which foreign nationals are allowed into the UK. It will also mean illegal immigrants can be identified more quickly and will assist in preventing foreign nationals from coming back into the country illegally.

CONFIDENTIAL: Do British Nationals who have a voluntary card have to carry it with them?

MEG HILLIER: Nobody is required to carry the card. This is explicity prohibited by the law. Nor can the police ask for an ID card from a member of the public. People don't have to remember to carry it. I was at a presentation recently and I'd forgotten my card. I was being a frazzled mother and not managing my handbags. That was embarrassing for me, but in practice it wouldn't have mattered because I wouldn't have to produce it on demand. It's not that type of card.

CONFIDENTIAL: Do foreign nationals with an ID card have to carry it with them?

MEG HILLIER: No. Nobody is required to carry it. But foreign nationals will need the ID card if they wish to get a job, for benefits and so on: it makes it possible to check a person against centrally held records to see if they are who they say they are.

CONFIDENTIAL: It seems that the card is just a substitute, half measure passport which will make paying bills easier? What is the point of this extra level of identification?

MEG HILLIER: No, it's more than that, it's part of a new choice for British citizens. They can use the card to make their lives easier in many ways - ways that will evolve as the scheme gets used more and more and companies and businesses join in. It's about convenience, making life simpler but will also help provide more security for people. It also fits with what we have to do with passports and the costs are linked.

CONFIDENTIAL: What will the cost of introduction be and how can we justify that in the new economic circumstances?

MEG HILLIER: There are set up costs of £4.75bn for the National Identity Service over ten years. 80 per cent of these costs are involved with new style passports and biometric data such as fingerprints. 20 per cent of this sum (that's £950m, Ed) over the ten years are directly associated with the ID card. But the whole amount will be paid out of fees for the passports and the ID cards. The taxpayer will not have to pay extra, aside from some set up costs, unless they choose to have an ID card.

CONFIDENTIAL: Was the idea of an ID card – which began as an obligatory ID card – simply a bad one that was adhered to because it was government policy? They always say that ideas created in the immediate aftermath of a tragic event or as a knee-jerk reaction, such as 9/11 make for poor legislation. Is this then a poor idea you're trying to make the best of?

MEG HILLIER: It has changed over the years. Maybe we over-egged the heavy duty measurements to begin with. Now we think that what we are doing provides people with a reliable means of proving their identity if they wish to do so, in a convenient credit-card sized format. And it seems popular. 2400 cards in Manchester have been issued, 15,000 people have asked for information packs and we're getting 600 requests a day for information.

CONFIDENTIAL: But is the card somehow un-British, representing the type of authoritarian government which we have worked so hard to avoid? Despite the security threat, we do not have a wartime cabinet as we did in 1939-45.

MEG HILLIER: As I've said before you really cannot underestimate the security threat. I hear lots of things which don't go public. But we want to take the British people with us over this which is why it's not obligatory. And maybe we get sentimental over these things. We already have passports, there's already a wealth of information about people contained in government and non-governmental records. We're leaders too in this regard. The countries in front with biometric data collection are the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We're working together. This is where we should be, we believe. Other countries will follow suit, and we'll be ahead.

CONFIDENTIAL: Yes, but passports are about identifying yourself whilst passing through their countries. The ID card is totally different, it reaches the other way. It's about Britons in Britain having this information held somewhere for our authorities to check.

MEG HILLIER: This is why being a voluntary scheme we think we've got the balance right. You mentioned your interview with Greater Manchester Chief Constable Peter Fahy last year and how he said that the police do their job through public consent (in another part of the conversation. Ed). Well that's what we want to achieve. The ID card will be issued through the consent of any entitled individual.

CONFIDENTIAL: To finish off, won't all this effort be a waste if the Conservatives get into power and ditch the whole scheme?

MEG HILLIER: I don't think it is pointless of course. As for the Conservatives they want modern passports but are not sure about the database for those passports. They've not thought this through. If they did get rid of the ID card scheme the money invested will be wasted without taking advantage of the benefits on offer. Of course it's not for one government to tell a future government what to do.

The end

P.S. Confidential's last word

So this card isn't a proper passport, won't be effective for years in many areas of British life, and doesn't have any significant impact on counter-terrorism or national security. Nor does it – thankfully - have to be produced on demand by the police.

So again, again, and thrice again, why bother? It seems a pointless and expensive exercise even if the process will be paid through fees. It feels like the fag end of a big idea that was unacceptable to the majority of the public and has been watered down to nothing but an administrative exercise with little value. For instance, to us it seems crazy to just buy a travel document for the EU - how limiting - when a passport will contain much of the info on the ID card and allow you to travel the world over for ten years for £47.80 difference.

Maybe the Home Office are arguing about this in an arse about tail way. Maybe they should be going heavy on the advantages of the scheme in protecting people's identity. Maybe they should be saying that once you have the card and all the biometric data then all the other identity information in public and private organisations could be ditched. That would be a better argument than banging on about how convenient an ID card can be for kids who don't want to take their passports to clubs. That way the only people with access to your precious data would be those 100 people in the military-style concrete bunker.

The problem with this is that nobody would trust those public and private organisations to ditch the existing data they hold. Nor would we necessarily have faith in any government database not to break down.

In which case we think at Confidential, given the ID cards limits, that we should ditch the whole scheme right-away. Nip it in the bud. Put it out of its misery.

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8 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousJanuary 20th 2010.

"These cards let you get ahead of that process and if you only intend travelling in the EU you only need pay £30 rather than £77.80 for a full passport – that's £3 a year for the ten year's of the ID Card's life." Confidential - you failed to point out the most obvious flaw in this argument. In order to get this card you must have a passport! Therefore it is another cost on top of the £77.80 not instead of!

DescartesJanuary 20th 2010.

I trust my bank to look after my money, why would I not trust them to look after my personal information too?<br><br>
I do not, however, trust the government with much of anything, sorry Meg, but how many news stories did we see last year about government agencies losing confidential information?

C28January 21st 2010.

Meg Hillier says: 'The countries in front with biometric data collection are the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. We're working together. This is where we should be, we believe. Other countries will follow suit, and we'll be ahead.' Well Meg, that the countries who fought for liberty in WWII are doing this fills me with shame.

Stephen RyanJanuary 21st 2010.

I don't really trust the banks to look after much of anything anymore - but I suppose that's by the by.

This all seems like a waste of time, but as any Tory will tell you scrapping a scheme (NHS computer system is a prime example) when it has had so much money ploughed into it almost seems worse than reaping the benefits of the good parts - however small they may be.

Leigh ScottJanuary 21st 2010.

Nothing more than a big threatening fart that ended up shitting it's self.

AgricolaJanuary 22nd 2010.

Lovely Scoteee. But it is a waste of time and effort

ZemusJanuary 22nd 2010.

It sounds like the minister isn't really convinced herself. I mean leaving the card behind on a presentation

LakenmanJanuary 25th 2010.

This is what you expect from ministers - incompetence. Or worse trying to put a brave face on something which has no point.

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