In defence of ID cards

As expected, the UK government’s pilot scheme requiring voters to identify themselves at the polling station is not a success:

A 76-year-old man who has lived in Bromley for 40 years told The Independent he was “shocked” to be turned away because he did not have a bank card or passport. […] Under the pilot scheme, voters are required to produce accepted identity documents including a passport, driving licence, European ID card or Oyster 60+ London Pass. If the voter does not possess any of the documents specified, they can use a combination of two other items including their name and registered address, like a debit card, bank statement or utility bill.

I’m not sure there’s enough fraud to warrant this anyway (I’m actually much more concerned with postal voting, which presumably can still be done without showing any ID). However, it’s surely problematic that there is no simple way to prove who you are and that you have the right to do whatever it is you’re wanting to do.

Because there is no simple way to check this, the burden gets shifted to other people, who have to spend a lot of time figuring out whether somebody is a legal resident or not. Monique Hawkins has written a great Twitter thread documenting some of a mad consequences of this. For instance, the guide to help landlords distinguish between illegal immigrants and legal citizens is 39 pages long, and the one to help English NHS employees do the same is fully 118 pages long.

Given the complexity of it all, of course errors get made. A great example is this story about a young English man who had never been abroad but was threatened with deportation to Uganda (and lost his job because the Home Office called his employer and told them they had to suspend him because they could be prosecuted and fined if they kept him on the books.) This could basically happened to anybody.

What is basically happening is that the old British model of immigration is breaking down, but nobody is willing to create a new model that actually works.

The old British model basically consisted of checking the external borders and making sure that only citizens and legal immigrants were allowed to enter. Once you were in, there were no further checks, and you could use the NHS, the education system and everything else on an equal footing with the citizens.

That model has broken down because so many people are now allowed to enter the country legally on a temporary basis (e.g., international tourists, students and business people), which means that checking their status only when they enter the country really isn’t sufficient. (The EU’s free movement of people also doesn’t work well with this model, but to be honest it’s hardly the biggest problem, because EU citizens are entitled to stay here indefinitely anyway if they get a job.)

However, this model is still how many people think about immigration, which is why the Leave campaign talked so much about “controlling the borders”. As explained above, it really wouldn’t make much of a difference, and it’s clear that the Home Office are far more concerned with controlling the residence rights of people who’re already here than with denying people access.

In most other countries a different model is used: The state maintains a list of people that have the right to be in the country, and you get checked against this list when you register with a GP, sign your kid up for school, vote, and so on. In some countries, you get a small card that proves you’re on the list (an ID card), and in other places (especially in Scandinavia), you get a number that you use instead.

Scotland is already moving towards the number model: The CHI number that the Scottish NHS uses to identify you functions exactly like this. If it gets rolled out to other places (such as the HMRC and the education system), Scotland will effectively function in the same way as Denmark.

The Danish database works well, but it makes it a bit too tempting to merge various databases that really don’t need it, and it’s also a bit too easy to use somebody else’s number at times. One might therefore argue that it’s actually safer and less intrusive to use ID cards, because these don’t need to be tied to a huge Big Brother database.

The problem with New Labour’s ID card project was that it combined the worst aspects of all existing solutions: It involved a huge database like in Scandinavia but also used ID cards; the cards wouldn’t be obligatory, so GPs or letter agencies wouldn’t be able to demand to see one; and they would be expensive in order to make money for the state. In short, it was a plan from hell.

That doesn’t mean that ID cards are a bad idea per se, however. Issuing free ID cards to all residents (preferably the size of a credit card) that specify their status (citizen, EU citizen, permanent resident, international student, and so on) would be great, especially if they could also be used in lieu of a passport when traveling in Europe. There shouldn’t be any obligation to carry it, but it would be needed in order to register with a GP, sign your kid up for school, vote, or let a flat.

People would then be able to confirm that the status on their card corresponded to their expectations, and the issuing office would keep a record of when people first registered, and how their status had changed over time. If such a system had been in place for a long time, the Windrush generation and their descendants would never have had any problems, and changing the residency status of EU citizens after Brexit would be a piece of cake. It would also mean that asking for ID at polling places wouldn’t be a case of discriminating against poor people, because everybody would have an ID card.

In short, an ID card (or, alternatively, an extended CHI database) would solve a lot of problems. The current situation is a complete mess, so it’s a shame that ID cards have got such a bad name in this country.

2 thoughts on “In defence of ID cards

  • 04/05/2018 at 08:35
    Permalink

    Utterly ironic when you remember these are the people who were going to cut all that red tape that emanated from those un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels.

    Reply

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