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The IDs of March

Ping-pong is so much fun. If you haven't been following the ins and outs of the latest incarnation of the Identity Cards Bill, it's on about its fifth bat between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, with doubtless more to come. In the fourth bat, the Lords had proposed an amendment making the system opt-in until 2012, which would have meant that when you applied for your new passport (or other designated document, such as residence permit or driver's license) you would have the option of also being added to the National Identity Register and an ID card. That, of course, is not what the government wants.

Despite all the lip service paid in the election manifesto to the scheme's being voluntary, the government wants registration to be compulsorily tied to the issuance of documents that most people want to have. In the government's scheme, the ID card will be "voluntary" in the sense that having a passport is "voluntary". Don't want an ID card? Fine. Don't travel, and if you drive, don't lose your old license, change address, or turn 70. (For Americans: old-style British licenses are a fancily printed piece of folded paper that are valid until you're 70; these are gradually being replaced by new-style plastic photo licenses that are valid for ten years, but it's a very long process. Few people in Britain carry them as daily identification, and the only time you need to produce it is within ten days of being stopped for a traffic violation, so there's little incentive to update them.)

The Commons rejected that (PDF). What's supposed to happen next: the House will reject the Lords' amendments again, and the Lords will amend it again.

We even know something about how the Lords will try to amend it: Lord Armstrong of Ilminster has already tabled the amendment to be proposed. The new amendment will offer people the chance to opt out of registering in the national identity database and acquiring an ID card alongside a passport application. It's an interesting idea for a compromise. Most people will not bother to opt out. The ones who do will be the ones who otherwise might decide to forgo travelling in order to avoid registering as long as possible.

If that amendment were to succeed—and it seems likely to garner more support than the last round—there is one significance class of people we know would not opt out of getting ID cards: criminals. Just as you'd probably opt to wear a business suit and tie and get your hair cut respectably short if you were a dope dealer traveling internationally, if you are up to any nefarious schemes you will want the credibility having an ID card will lend you.

Eventually, the most likely outcome is that the Commons will win. There are several reasons for that, none of them really to do with ID cards. The most important is the balance of power between the Commons and the Lords: everyone agrees that the Commons, as the elected body, has supremacy. But the whole mess could easily drag on long enough to block the bill until everyone goes on their summer vacation. If the Commons has to invoke the Parliamentary Act to override the Lords' dissent, we could be into November before the government can even get going on it. The ID card is already behind the govenrment's original schedule. But, hey, what's the hurry?

The ID card is becoming secondary in these debates to the question of how much say the Lords should have and how much the government is railroading its proposals through. The ID card is increasingly controversial; the most recent YouGov/Daily Telegraph survey (PDF) showed only 45 percent in favor of the thing, and support decreases when the estimated cost rises from £6 billion (government) to £18 billion (LSE's upper figure). Are the Lords in fact more representative than the elected Commons?

It's interesting to consider this question in the light of the Power Inquiry, which is considering the question of voter alienation. Two of its conclusions: that there should be a "rebalancing of power away from the executive and unaccountable bodies towards Parliament and local government" and that electoral systems should be more responsive "allowing citizens a much more direct and focused say over political decisions and policies". Exactly the opposite is happening with respect to the ID Cards bill which, given the size of the shift it would cause in British national life and its cost, arguably should be the subject of a referendum.

In this context it's also worth reading testimony given recently to the US Congress by Stephen T. Kent, author of two books on ID card systems about the difficulties of doing what the UK government is proposing (and the US government has in mind with Real ID). Kent reminds us that what we are proposing to build is not an ID card but an ID system, and asks the same questions that even technology vendors have been asking the British government all along: what is the system for? What problem are you trying to solve? Without a clear set of goals, how can the technology fail to fail? In Britain's case, though, getting the ID card bill passed seems to be the problem the ID card is trying to solve.

You can, of course, still promise to refuse.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of linkts to all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to send email ( but please turn off HTML), or to post comments at the net.wars blog


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