Johnson accused of pressing ahead compulsory scheme by ‘back door’
by Alan Travis
British citizens who apply for or renew their passport will be automatically registered on the national identity card database under regulations to be approved by MPs in the next few weeks.
The decision to press ahead with the main elements of the national identity card scheme follows a review by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, of the £4.9bn project. Although Johnson said the cards would not be compulsory, critics say the passport measures amount to an attempt to introduce the system by the backdoor.
Johnson said he had halted plans to introduce compulsory identity cards for airline pilots and 30,000 other “critical workers” at Manchester and London City airports this autumn in the face of threats of legal action. Longer term plans to extend compulsory ID cards to other transport industries, such as the railways, as a condition of employment have also been scrapped.
But two batches of draft regulations to be approved by MPs tomorrow and next week are expected to include powers to make the passport a “designated document” under the national identity card scheme. This means that anyone applying for or renewing their passport from 2011 will have their details automatically added to the national identity databases.
The regulations also include powers to levy a fine of up to £1,000 on those who fail to tell the authorities of a change of address or amend other key personal details such as a change of name within three months.
Johnson said he wanted to see the introduction of identity cards accelerated for foreign nationals resident in Britain and for young “early adopters” for whom they would act as a useful proof of age. This trial is to be extended from Manchester to other parts of the north-west.
The home secretary is also looking at the possibility of waiving the £30 fee for those over 75 who want a voluntary identity card.
“There will be significant benefits to individuals from holding an identity card, which will become the most convenient, secure and affordable way of asserting identity in everyday life,” said Johnson. “Identity cards will also be valid for travel throughout Europe in place of a British passport.”
The home secretary emphasised his personal commitment to a voluntary scheme, saying it should be a personal choice for British citizens just as it is now to obtain a passport.
He also denied that there were any significant public spending savings to be made by cancelling the project saying: “This scheme pays for itself. If you cancel all you will get is diddly squat.”
This is a reference to the self-financing nature of the project under which it is to be paid for through increased charges for passports and the £60 cost of a biometric identity card.
The only way for ID card critics to avoid being included on the national identity card databases will be not to apply or renew their passport – and so not to leave the country. As about 80% of the population currently hold a passport, the Identity and Passport Service believe that take-up of the voluntary scheme would be high.
Critics argue that at that point a political decision could be made about whether it should become compulsory for the rest of the population.
Isabella Sankey, director of policy at the human rights group Liberty, said the home secretary needed to be clear as to whether entry onto the national identity register was going to continue to be automatic when applying for a passport.
“If so, the identity scheme will be compulsory in practice. However you spin it, big ears, four legs and a long trunk still make an elephant,” she said.
“And this white elephant would be as costly to privacy and race equality as to our purses.”
Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, said the decision to drop the compulsory airport trials was symbolic of a government in chaos.
“They have spent millions on the scheme so far – the home secretary thinks it has been a waste and wants to scrap it, but the prime minister won’t let him. So we end up with an absurd fudge instead,” he said.
Guy Herbert of the No2ID campaign said the pressing ahead with making the passport a “designated document” made a nonsense of the home secretary’s assertion that the scheme was not compulsory.
“It is not compulsory as long as you don’t want to leave the country,” he said.
He said that the announcements made by Johnson were part of the Home Office’s continuing strategy to defend the scheme against cancellation by stretching it out further and further and by aligning it ever closer with the passport system.