Lawyer 2B/BPP Competition Winners: Essay 1

After much deliberation, Lawyer 2B can reveal the winners of the Lawyer 2B/BPP Law School essay competition, who claim their prizes of free GDL and LPC places. Here are the winning essays…

Essay 1: Identity cards are a price worth paying to protect security. Discuss. By Alex Muir.

Recent months have seen a great deal of press coverage over the movement of three pieces of draft legislation through the Houses of Parliament. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and the Terrorism Bill are directly related to preventing terrorism and forming an effective legal system for dealing with it. The Identity Cards Bill is commonly seen as a measure against terrorism, but there is little evidence to suggest that identity cards will have any impact on determined terrorists. The fundamental fact is that there is no link between a plastic identity card and the detection of crime or terrorism; as will be discussed below, the power of the identity card system comes from the database behind it, leaving the identity card itself redundant in anything other than a compulsory system.

A quick survey of the Identity Card Bill is necessary to establish a framework around which to construct a debate over the issues. The bill proposes the introduction of an ID card for each UK citizen and resident above the age of 16. The card will contain a photograph alongside name, date of birth, immigration status and address. The card will contain a computer chip that stores biometric details of the holder, likely to be a fingerprint and/or iris scan. The data on the card will also be stored in a central database, the National Identity Register (ID Register). Other information stored in the ID Register will include previous addresses, passport and driving licence reference numbers.

When we discuss our security, we mean our assurance of protection from various threats. There is the security of the individual from threats of crime, terrorism and personal fraud, but also the security of society from benefit fraud, large-scale fraud, health tourism and black market labour. An effective identity card scheme could have a positive impact on all these areas, but largely through the collation and verification of information rather than identity checks. Unless checks on identity are made unavoidable, the system will be ineffective in such areas as black market labour and health tourism. The Law Society pointed out that the problems of illegal working are not caused by a lack of suitable methods of proving identity, but with “the small number of employers who do not at the moment carry out the appropriate checks”. This is an essential flaw with any ID card.

There are suggestions, both from the Government and from the press, that ID cards could replace driving licences or passports. This is certainly impossible in the short term. The layout of UK driving licences is governed by an EU directive setting out how information is presented; likewise, the design of passports is regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation. Neither of these forms of identification can be replaced without considerable international agreement. To assume that new standards would be adopted based on a UK scheme would be arrogant at best.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) welcomes the introduction of ID cards, believing that it will make members’ jobs easier. Among the points it makes in its memorandum to the Home Affairs Select Committee is a suggestion that “repeat stops of individuals could become a thing of the past if ‘mobile readers’ were able to identify individuals who had been stopped previously”. It is fairly obvious that this suggestion would never be effective and would certainly not be welcomed by officers on the beat – effectively it would provide criminals with immunity from stop searches once they had exceeded a predetermined quota.

The ACPO’s suggestion is illustrative of the general view among many policymakers and institutional supporters that an ID card system would prove a panacea to a multitude of unconnected problems. Such a view is dangerous in that it distorts any cost benefit calculation by introducing benefits that would never be achievable. With no power for the police to demand ID cards, and the scheme being ‘semi-voluntary’, it would seem that the police will find ID cards a very limited tool.

Usage of ID cards on anything approaching a regular basis will be restricted to large financial transactions and registration for benefit payments. Even in these cases, without compulsory registration other forms of identity checks will be acceptable, rendering the entire process pointless. Of course, ID cards will be accepted as proof of identity, but this cannot be included as a benefit while previous systems continue to be recognised.

Without the system requiring compulsory registration, the benefits ID cards will bring are extremely limited. The current proposals could be described as compulsory, and indeed the Home Affairs Select Committee has declared that “to describe the first phase of the Government’s proposals as voluntary stretches the English language to breaking point”. However, without the system being officially compulsory, alternative forms of identity will be equally valid and individuals will be able to avoid registration.

It could therefore be argued that identity cards will be little more than a receipt for an entry into the ID Register. This would certainly be the case with the proposals in their current format, which will find most people’s cards consigned to folders along with their redundant National Insurance cards. There is a very clear indication that the ID card will play a minor role in the proposed system. From a security perspective, individuals being able to produce a card on request will not prevent crime, terrorism or disorder, nor will it improve detection rates. The police’s current problems are in catching criminals rather than identifying them. Rather, the power to deal with threats to our society will come from the ID Register, as discussed in the following paragraphs.

The ID Register promises to provide a full list of the UK population above the age of 16. The current tools available to law enforcement and security services provide databases of people who have already come to their attention, with the possibility of multiple listings referring to the same person. A biometrics-based database will make it impossible for an individual to have multiple identities, either through choice or through confusion in the records system. In addition, there will be computerised photographs of each individual linked to details such as their current and previous addresses, passport details and immigration status.

The ID Register will also contain a record of the occasions on which an individual’s information has been accessed and by whom. Such an audit trail would provide a basic method of tracking people across the country, and revealing those who are repeatedly coming to the attention of the security services. An audit trail would almost certainly provide the most valuable information on people of interest, allowing a glimpse into their daily lives far beyond the intended contents of the database. The audit trail is of great concern to organisations such as Liberty, which believes it is very open to abuse given the wide rights of access the bill grants to the police, the Government and security services.

The real power of these proposals clearly lies in the ID Register, raising the question of why identity cards will even be issued. Surely an ideal solution would be to introduce the database and then wait to see whether there is an international or European consensus on a standard international ID card. I contend that the main reason for issuing identity cards is one of public opinion rather than practicality. The population would not be willing to present themselves for registration into a database, and would certainly not be willing to pay a suggested fee of up to £90 for the privilege. By introducing ID cards as the primary issue, the Government is receiving a database of the population for free, subsidised by individuals. Because identity cards are seen as the main purpose of the system, people will feel that they are ‘registering for an ID card’ rather then being entered into a database. There is an important psychological difference.

So, having decided that the ID card is actually a minimal part of the proposed system, we are left to ask whether we are individually prepared to pay the price for a system that is being sold to us on very dubious grounds. I would suggest that it is unreasonable for the Government to expect individuals to pay for a system that brings its benefits largely to the state. In fact, current proposals could be likened to charging for entries on the electoral register, something that the general public would certainly not find acceptable.

However, a slower implementation of ID cards may be a price worth paying for a reliable and effective system that protects our security in the long term. A database could be established, and ID cards issued at a later date, once the population has been fully registered. This would be an ideal solution, but one which the Government is unlikely to pursue due to public opposition.

Only a system that is compulsory will provide real security benefits. Anything less is a poor solution to a recognisable problem. A security system is only as secure as its weakest point, and a voluntary system may as well not exist. A properly planned and well-designed system should provide a variety of benefits for individuals in the UK, and there should not, therefore, be a ‘price to pay’.

Alex Muir is currently reading Arabic at St Andrews University.