(any spelling mistakes/typos are my own, not Mr Browne's.)

HOME OFFICE
DES BROWNE MP
MINISTER OF STATE

50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT

13 Jan 2005


Dear David [Lepper],

Thank you for your letter of 18 December 2004 to Charles Clarke on behalf of [Mr Scribe] of [Brighton] about identity cards. Your letter has been passed to me for reply as the Minister with responsibility in this area of policy.

I should explain at the outset that the Government's decision to establish a national identity cards scheme has already been announced and the Identity Cards Bill was introduced into Parliament on 29 November 2004. Second reading of the Identity Cards Bill took place on the 20 December 2004.

The legislation has been the subject of a consultation exercise and a summary of the findings from that consultation was published on 27 October 2004, alongside the Government's response to the Home Affairs Select Committee report and pre-legislative scrutiny of the Draft Identity Cards Bill.

The Government's decision to proceed with the introduction of a national identity cards scheme is based partly on the fact that we will have to introduce more secure personal identifiers (biometrics) into our passports and other existing documents in line with international requirements. Right across the world there is a drive to increase document security with biometrics, on which we can't be left behind. It is worth remembering that 21 of the 25 EU Member States (all apart from the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Latvia) have identity cards.

The decision to introduce biometrics into existing identity documents has therefore already been made. Without an identity cards scheme, the majority of the population would be enrolled via existing documents like passports anyway. The costs involved in this would be nearly the same as implementing a comprehensive identity cards scheme available to the whole resident population, but without the added benefits.

Identity cards will be linked to existing documents such as passports and will incorporate a biometric such as fingerprint or iris scan. The introduction of identity cards on a phased basis will on current plans start from 2008.

Regarding [Mr Scribe's] many concerns, the Government's proposals are designed to safeguard, not erode, civil liberties by protecting people's true identity against fraud and by enabling them to prove their identity more easily when accessing public or private services.

An identity card will strengthen peoples' privacy because it will provide highly verified evidence of identity rather than being asked by private sector organisations for a range of less secure documents which may contain a broad range of additional information not relevant to checking an individual's identity. The existence of a register is not a threat to privacy; 44 million people in this country are already comfortable with their data being held by the DVLA or Passport Service. Privacy is only threatened if there are not sufficient safeguards to disclosure. The Government has set out these safeguards in the Bill for Parliament to establish.

Currently, there is a situation where we do actually have function creep in our existing identity documents due to the lack of any other reliable proof of identity. So, for example the National Insurance Number is often accepted as proof of eligibility to work, which it is not; a driving license is used as de facto proof of identity, without the strict identity checking process being carried out when it is issued. It is envisaged an identity card will help UK residents establish their identity and entitlement to services in a simple, easy, convenient way and to regulate access to public services to reduce fraudulent use of services by those not entitled and in time to deliver more efficient access to services.

With regard to [Mr Scribe's] concern on the information that may be held by the identity cards scheme, this is listed in the Bill which includes personal information such as name, address, date and place of birth. Clause 1(2) of the Identity Cards Bill sets out the statutory purpose of the Register. It makes clear that the register is to provide a record of "registrable facts" about the identity of individuals who are resident in the United Kingdom or have applied to be entered on the register. Only Parliament would be able to change the information which could be held by the scheme.

However, there is absolutely no question of an identity card holding sensitive personal information such as medical records, racial or ethnic origin, political opinions or religious or other beliefs. That is why the information to be held on the scheme is so tightly defined.

There will be an exception to the general bar on disclosing information from the Register where disclosure is in the interests of national security and for the prevention and investigation of crime. The disclosure of information to the police and security and intelligence agencies will be allowed only for specified purposes and subject to an internal authorisation and independent oversight.

There will be a general power under Clause 20 to disclose information about an individual held on the Register to the security and intelligence agencies for their purposes, e.g. as on the grounds of national security.

Law enforcement agencies including Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue will be able to seek disclosure of information from the Register for specified purposes e.g. for the prevention or investigation of crime. This will also apply to the Immigration Service which, as a part of the Secretary of State's department, does not need to be named on the face of the Bill. Disclosure will also be allowed in prescribed cases to other Secretaries of State such as the Department for Work and Pensions for example to help investigate benefit fraud. For these groups, disclosure of "audit trails" of card usage is permitted only in cases of serious crime. The definition of serious crime is based in that used in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and requires that:-

a) it involves the use of violence, results in substantial financial gain or is conducted by a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose, or

b) The offence or one of the offences is an offence for which a person who has attained the age of twenty-one and has no previous convictions could reasonably be expected to be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of threee years or more.

I must emphasise that we have never said that the identity cards scheme is intended to be the sole solution to identity fraud, illegal immigration and working, or terrorism. The scheme is therefore not being designed to be the primary method of combating these problems.

However, the Security Services have said that an ID card will help combat terrorism. Sir John Stevens says it will help. We trust the judgements of those people whose job it is to fight terrorists. A card scheme would disrupt the use of false identities by terrorist organisations, for example in the money laundering and organised crime. We know that at least one-third of terrorist suspects make use of false identities. The scheme would also be a useful tool in helping to monitor and disrupt the support activities of terrorist networks.

Furthermore, to achieve all of this the Government is not taking a "quick fix" approach. Any changes that would deliver benefits earlier will be considered, such as building on existing plans to increase the security of passports. We are determined to have realistic timescales that ensure the benefits of the scheme are maximised and achieved as early as is practicable.

The Government believe the public understand that issuing some 60 million cards will not be an easy task, and that it is better for all to get it right.

So what we gain with the ID card, over and above just adding biometrics to existing documents, are the benefits flowing from secure identification and a register to hold the information, such as in tackling illegal working and fraudulent access to public services. Added to this, offering an ID card at a reduced cost for those on low incomes and the elderly will give the least well off the same means of providing their identity as those who can afford to travel abroad.

We appreciate the time [Mr Scribe] has taken to comment on this issue.

DES BROWNE