John Humphrys - Could ID Cards Stop the People Smugglers?

April 05, 2024, 1:38 PM GMT+0

When the world is in such a state of turmoil it is almost a relief to turn to domestic problems. I almost wrote domestic “crises” but it’s too easy to abuse that word “crisis” and thus diminish its meaning. If the terrible events in Ukraine and Gaza qualify as crises – which they surely do – how should we categorise unwanted immigration here at home? How about “problem”? Unlike real crises, “problems” have solutions. This is where the former Home Secretary David Blunkett (now, of course, Lord Blunkett) comes in. He has proposed a solution.

He wants to introduce ID cards.

In an essay for the Mail he says we had the solution more than twenty years ago when people smuggling was just starting to become a serious problem. He believes, we could – and should – apply that solution today. Identity cards, he says, are a “simple, practical and affordable answer, one that would shatter the business model of organised international gangs making billions from human trafficking.”

He bases that on his experience as Home Secretary in the early noughties when he introduced an experimental ID scheme that he believes “produced dramatic results”. If Britain had kept that system and developed it, he says, the small boats scandal might never have happened. If migrants needed an ID card to work in Britain or claim benefits or get non-emergency treatment on the NHS, they would be less inclined to come here. It is, he says, a “no brainer”.

But, of course, we did not keep the scheme – partly because debit cards and credit cards had become commonplace and both were seen to act as a form of identification. The problem with them is that they can easily be stolen. ID cards would be far more secure because they incorporate biometric technology that cannot easily be faked or misused.

Blunkett acknowledges that he had not fully anticipated the strength of opposition from a vocal minority who accused him of “attempting to mastermind some sort of Orwellian deep state surveillance.” His scheme was depicted as insidious as well as unworkable and, although there was a prototype experimental roll-out, it was abandoned in pretty short order. Only 15,000 cards were ever issued.

Blunkett believes that the opposition to his plan was led by a “small, fanatical group”. In one widely reported stunt, they burnt a fake card with his face on it. But he insists that only a small minority – fewer than 20 per cent of voters – were actually opposed to the plan.

With hindsight, he believes, he should have enlisted teenagers first, offering them free passports at 16 with an ID card alongside. By now those teens would be in their mid-30s. All those renewing passports would have automatically been enrolled into the system.

How ironic, he notes, that many of the same people who protested at the very notion of ID cards because they would have exposed us to deep surveillance by analysing our online activity were “cheerfully signing up to social media within a few years.” He points out that companies such as Facebook and Elon Musk's X really can track our physical movements via global positioning satellites and concludes: “The worst predictions for my ID cards seem utterly innocuous compared with the everyday monitoring of our lives today.”

We also , of course, use our smartphones as ID devices in many different ways. Many of us have debit and credit card information on them and some have an NHS app with personal health information too. So, Blunkett suggests, why not have an ID card on our smartphone? And for those who don't have one there would be a card as a safe alternative for ID purposes — simple to carry and simple to use.

Blunkett insists that his embryonic scheme was starting to make a difference. Back in 2002 migrants were being smuggled into this country in lorries and through the Channel Tunnel but when ID cards were released the numbers fell by about two-thirds. He says: “The gangs realised it wasn't worth their while to traffic people into the UK if migrants found they were unable to work or claim benefits without an ID card, and thus would be liable to deportation.”

But the political coalition government came to power in 2010 and Nick Clegg's Lib Dems were having none of it. They insisted that it should be scrapped – and so it was.

The latest figures show that the number of people who have arrived this year in Britain on small boats has passed 5,000 and with calmer seas in summer it’s expected that figure will increase sharply.

Blunkett claims there are other advantages to ID cards. One is that they could reduce pressure on NHS waiting lists. That’s because many foreign nationals who need hospital treatment find it cheaper to fly to Britain and use ours for free than pay for healthcare at home.

And there's a more sinister effect of uncontrolled immigration too: modern-day slavery. He writes: “Slavery is an abhorrent blight on our society — and it's on the rise. ID cards could supply an effective weapon to combat it. As long as we have no means of establishing a person's identity, organised criminals will find ways to circumvent all our safeguards. There's little use in threatening to send immigrants to Rwanda for processing if the traffickers are able to put people to work in the subterranean economy and hide them from official view.”

So … a clear case for the introduction of ID cards? Not according to Blunkett’s fellow Mail columnist Peter Hitchens. Like many others he bases his opposition on the loss of freedom they would entail.

With a hefty dollop of sarcasm Hitchens writes: “It would be really useful to the authorities if we all had barcodes tattooed on our foreheads at birth. After all, if you have nothing to fear, and have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide, or so they say… But there is much more to life than the convenience of state bureaucrats sitting behind desks. And my guess is that, even if we did submit to such indignities, we would still spend a huge part of our lives queuing to get through officious ‘security’ checks and filling in forms.”

But what about the argument that ID cards played a part in keeping us safe when they were introduced at the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939? Hitchens says it’s simply not true. He also points out that a black market in stolen cards quickly sprang up and half a million people managed to lose theirs in the first two years of the war. And he adds this:

“They would, of course, have been very useful to the Nazis, had they ever arrived, in rounding up Jews and other persons they wanted to kill. In fact a Jewish furrier, Meyer Rubinstein was prosecuted in 1950 for never having obtained a card, presumably because he feared that putting such an obviously Jewish name on a national register would be his death warrant. Note that he managed to live happily without it for ten years, and also that the cards still existed in 1950, five years after the war had ended. They only disappeared after increasingly officious abuse of them by the police.”

Hitchens claims that “our recent experience of Covid restrictions, weird surveillance of dissenting journalists including (apparently) me, and the police sunbathing squad warn us that such things could easily happen again in modern Britain, only with added helicopters, CCTV cameras and internet snooping.”

Supporters of official ID cards reject the loss of freedom argument by pointing out that we already have various forms of identification imposed by the state, such as driving licences and NHS ID numbers. And anyway, they ask, how many people do you know who do not already carry a means of identification which contains vast amounts of personal information?

Yes, we’re back to smart phones. How much “personal” information is stored in your own phone?

So where do you stand on ID cards? If you are opposed to them what is your opposition based on? A fear of the “Big Brother” state or something less sinister, such as yet another layer of state bureaucracy to navigate with all that implies? Or do you simply doubt that they will be effective? And if you approve is it for the reasons Lord Blunkett offers? Might they really make the life of people smugglers so much more difficult?

Do let us know.

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