10 December 2015

We must put the security of our realm at centre stage and look again at Labour’s identity card scheme

By Frank Field MP and Nicholas Soames MP

The biggest mistake of the coalition government was to scrap Labour’s identity card scheme just as it was nearing fruition. Now, in the aftermath of Paris, the security of the realm must take centre stage. If now isn’t the time to re-consider the introduction of national identity cards when might events warrant it?

Of course, the cards will not stop attacks happening but they may well help to prevent them. In the event of another atrocity they could aid the rapid identification of co-conspirators. We have seen this in Paris where the authorities were able to establish the identity of the killers in a matter of hours; a vital part of preventing further follow up attacks.

More generally, pinning people down to one identity makes it much harder for them to operate in the shadows, for example, in organised crime or money laundering.

In this age of the mass movement of people we simply do not know who is living in the UK. There have been, until very recently, no exit checks in the UK. No checks in fact for nearly twenty years. As a result, the authorities literally have no idea who is still in the country.

The Border Force battles daily to intercept those trying to enter illegally via Calais and elsewhere, but many will get through. Most are simply economic migrants, but some will be involved with organised criminality or worse. They will join the estimated one million illegal immigrants already in the UK.

The introduction of ID cards would definitely make it harder for those here illegally to operate; it might also deter people from trying to breach our borders in the first place. And it would have an impact on those who overstay their visas. There is no question the public are conscious of the extent of illegal immigration and want it tackled. Achieving this is central to any efforts to get a grip of our borders and restore public confidence in our immigration system.

As well as our external borders we need protection for our health system. An ID card, if properly set up, could also act an entitlement card. The NHS is our national health service, not an international one open to abuse. The production of an ID card could be a simple way of establishing the right to free treatment at the point of use. This would deal with complaints from the health profession that they cannot be expected to decide who qualifies for care and who doesn’t.

Similarly, landlords and employers could use the ID card as the one document that gives confidence that someone has the right to rent accommodation or to work. Preventing illegal working is one of the best ways of tackling illegal immigration.

An ID card can also help form an “invisible border” around our welfare state and help the much needed transition to a contributory system – one based on fairness where you have to pay in before you take out. Changing to an ID system could also prevent European migrants from accessing tax credits and other benefits almost immediately they start working in the UK – something with which the Prime Minister is currently struggling and looks unlikely to achieve in his tortuous renegotiations with our EU partners.

We quite understand that some of our colleagues oppose as a matter of principle the idea of ID cards although we guess that the numbers are falling, particularly as it is popular with the public. Its introduction will raise concerns about privacy and about the power of the state.

These are important considerations however these should not be overstated. ID cards are widely used throughout the European Union, with 25 out of 28 member states currently operating them, indeed 15 EU countries have mandatory schemes.

We are a welcoming and remarkably tolerant country. To keep it that way, the public need to be confident that the government has control over who enters our country and who remains here. We also need to be confident that the security services have the tools they need to keep us safe in the face of an unprecedented threat to public order.

Now is the time to return to debate the introduction of ID cards.

Frank Field MP and Sir Nicholas Soames MP are co-chairmen of the cross-party group on balanced migration