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Identity Cards Bill has inadequate safeguards, says Parliamentary Committee

Out-Law News | 25 Oct 2005 | 12:45 pm | 3 min. read

The all-party House of Lords Constitution Committee has published a critical report which reiterates concerns about insufficient safeguards in the Identity Cards Bill. But with a curious history lesson, the Government was quick to reject its comments.

Advert: Phishing conference, London, 27th October 2005The Government has previously rejected comments about the need for safeguards made by the Home Affairs Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The report

In introducing the Report, the Chairman of the Committee, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, stressed that the Committee is not concerned with the merits of the Bill – only its constitutional impact.

“Contrary to the Government’s assertions, the Committee reaffirms that the Bill fundamentally alters the relationship between citizens and the State,” he said. This largely arises because the Committee feels that the legislation needs to be "future proofed" against what it describes as "the potential for abuse of the registration scheme by officials of the State claiming to act in the public interest."

Lord Holme continued, "The Committee firmly reject Government claims that, in respect of privacy, ID cards are comparable to driving licenses and passports."

The Committee pointed out that the passport is "not subject to statute law at all" and that the driving licence relates to the "relatively narrow question of who should be permitted to drive particular classes of vehicle."

“If Parliament decides identity cards are needed, it must urgently consider amendments to introduce proper safeguards,” he argued. The Committee is concerned that the Commissioner charged with creating safeguards is not independent and does not have powers "to receive complaints from individuals."

He added, “Parliament should not allow the Home Secretary such powers to administer this significant and complex scheme.” The Committee said that currently, "by administrative action alone" a future Government could change the management of the ID Card scheme and database.

The Committee concluded that:

  • An independent body (not the Government) should be the custodian of the National Identity Registrar and have proper safeguards to prevent improper access to data, by public servants and others.
  • The proposed National Identity Scheme Commissioner should be independent of Government, with the power to investigate complaints and be able to report directly to Parliament.
  • The Bill’s scope should be limited to the “voluntary phase”. If the scheme is extended compulsorily to the entire population, then new legislation should be required. 

The Government's response

The Government has already rejected the Committee's conclusions.

In a response to the Committee, which is included in yesterday's publication, Baroness Scotland wrote, "I'm afraid that I do not accept the argument that this legislation will change radically the relationship between the state and the individual."

She continued: "The relationship between the state and the individual did not change in 1837 when it was made compulsory for every birth in England and Wales to be registered and recorded nationally, nor when similar provisions were introduced in Scotland in 1855 and in Ireland in 1864".

Scientists might find it absurd to compare 1837, the year of Queen Victoria's coronation, with today's information age. In 1837, Faraday was still 20 years from collecting his thoughts on electricity; and Babbage had three years previously abandoned work on his punch card "analytic engine" for lack of funds.

Baroness Scotland continued, "I do not agree with your view that responsibility for operating the register should not be for the Secretary of State." She added, "maintaining the supporting national identity register should be a direct responsibility of government".

"I do not agree that it is appropriate to create an entirely independent officer," she wrote. "Indeed the commissioner will be there to provide the Secretary of State with reassurance that the identity cards scheme is operating correctly as well as providing reports that will be published and laid before Parliament."

The scene is thus set for a contentious House of Lords encounter with the Government more or less saying that the three Parliamentary Committees which have expressed concern over the Bill have the wrong analysis.

The Bill was given a third reading in the Commons last Tuesday and was passed by 309 votes to 284, a government majority of just 25. The Government argues that the measure would not impact on civil liberties but give people more control over their identities. It is expected to commence its proceedings in the House of Lords at the end of this month.