8 September, 2003: No identity crisis, yet

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An interesting piece about ID cards in today's Telegraph (may require bullshit registration to view). It reports the results of a survey by internet polling outfit YouGov; sadly, their website doesn't have a copy of the report, so the only copy of the results are presented as an image on the Telegraph website; again, it's obviously vitally important to keep this information from getting into the hands of blind people. (It's worth bearing in mind that internet polling is probably not very reliable on social issues like this; here, the errors probably underestimate support for ID cards.)

(Inevitably, the article is illustrated with a picture of two young ladies, who in this case are holding up identity cards and are apparently Germans, but may as well have been Britons holding up printouts of record A-level results. ` All Newspapers', as Private Eye are fond of saying.)

The striking thing about the government's ID cards policy is that they have no idea what the things are for. They don't even know what the card will be called. This confusion is reflected in the attitudes of the public, as measured by the YouGov poll. Here are the responses to a question about the preferred type of ID card scheme:

Preferred ID card scheme Percentage of respondents
compulsory to carry at all times (and presumably to present on demand) 39
compulsory to own card, but not to carry at all time 42
optional to own one 18
don't know 2

And here are the responses to questions about the applications of a card:

Objective Percentage believing cards would help with objective Percentage not believing cards would help with objective Don't know
cut down on `health tourism' 78 14 9
cut down on benefit fraud 82 13 5
make it easier for police to catch criminals 60 26 14
make it easier for police, other officials to catch bogus asylum seekers, others attempting to avoid deportation 80 14 6

Concentrate on `health tourism', meaning `eeeevil foreigners getting treatment in the NHS'. Ignoring for the moment that this isn't a significant cost to the NHS, that most of those branded `health tourists' are perfectly entitled to treatment, and that the `health tourism' issue is just another bit of production-line tabloid xenophobia whipped up by crank pressure groups like Health Watch UK, we should look at how ID cards would be used to tackle this `problem'.

Obviously the idea is that in order to obtain health care you must have an ID card, and must be carrying it when you go to hospital. No ID card: no treatment. (Ignore for the moment the practical and ethical obstacles to this, and try not to imagine being in a car crash where the emergency services aren't able to rescue your ID card along with you....) Approximately 80% of people believe that using the ID card in this way will cut down on `health tourism'. But only half that number believe that the ID cards should be carried at all times. Isn't that strange?

Even more bizarre were answers to the question, ``If there were identity cards, which of the following groups should/would the police and other public authorities target?'' 37% of people fairly reasonably concluded that the authorities would use the cards to harass `foreign-looking people', and 46% that they would harass `young people' -- but 6% of people thought that foreign-looking people should be targeted! Truly we are living in the multicultural society.

It's interesting to contrast idealism about the applications of the cards -- 60% of people accept uncritically that the card will `make it easier for the police to catch criminals', but there's no mechanism by which it would help in general -- with cynicism about their design. 66% of people correctly believe that the cards will be easy to forge; 72% of people that the confidential data on the cards will be passed to unauthorised people, and 63% that the cards will contain additional information not needed for their real function. Slightly strangely, the survey didn't ask about identity `theft', which the cards will almost certainly make easier.

98% of people think that 40 is too much to pay for a card -- note that if the implementation the cards is as successful as typical government IT projects, the real cost is likely to be between 120 and 400. (Of course, that's unlikely to be the sum you send off to Miniluv; most of the cost will, quite properly, be financed through general taxation. But let's not kid ourselves about the amount. The 86% who think the card should be `free' are, if they think a card should be introduced at all, just asking for a substantial increase in their income tax bills.)

The Telegraph identifies ID cards as, potentially, `Labour's poll tax'. This may not be so far from the truth; for once, the Conservative policy is actually less offensive than Labour's, with Oliver Letwin even warning that a current ID card pilot scheme may be the thin end of a wedge. 'Course, if they ever got into power, they might well put somebody rather more extreme in the Home Office, and in any case I did hear Letwin on the radio earlier trying to keep up his credentials with the Blunkett-Jugend by advertising the report of the `independent' (i.e., Conservative) Kirkhope Commission, which proposes yet another plan to put asylum seekers in concentration camps, this time in far flung `safe' locations or off-shore. No social liberal he. There's no reason to suppose that a hypothetical future Conservative government wouldn't change its mind on the issue and I see no evidence that opposition to ID cards will be a Tory manifesto commitment.

(And while I mention it, how come nobody's pointed out that having a .com domain may not create the impression the Conservatives are after?)


Pete points out another oddity from the poll. Consider two questions:

If we interpret `would not mind' as `am apathetic', we have:

OpinionPercentage of respondents
Actually want the cards34
Oppose the cards20
Don't know/mind47

-- a rather different picture.

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.