UK Identity Card Bill Moves Ahead Despite Opposition

By Nicola Brent | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Britain's Labor government Tuesday survived its first serious internal rebellion since last month's election when it narrowly won a vote on controversial identity-card legislation.

The Identity Cards Bill, similar to legislation that stalled in the last parliament, would introduce an ID card system that has drawn scathing opposition from civil libertarians and ethnic minority groups.

The Labor government's House of Commons majority of 67 - down from 161 in the last parliament - was reduced in Tuesday's vote to just 31.

Twenty Labor lawmakers joined the opposition to vote against the bill, which has further hurdles to overcome, including House of Lords passage, before becoming law.

Before the vote, Home Secretary Charles Clarke did his best to dispel growing concerns about the cost of implementing the plan, imperfect technology, and the effect on civil liberties.

The cost of the ID card to individuals would be capped, he said, although he would not give a specific figure.

On the issue of civil liberties, Clarke's task was complicated by criticism from Information Commissioner Richard Thomas - an official appointed by the government to report to parliament on privacy issues - who said Monday the ID plan was part of a growing "surveillance society."

Thomas said the bill would allow for a "detailed data trail" of individuals' activities and threaten personal privacy - particularly when considered alongside other initiatives such as closed-circuit television camera surveillance, the use of automatic number plate recognition, and proposals for satellite tracking of vehicles for road user charges.

There could be "little justification," he said, for a bill that far exceeded the government's five stated goals - "national security, prevention and detection of crime, enforcement of immigration controls, enforcement of prohibitions on illegal working [and] efficient and effective delivery of public services."

Clarke's assertion that the bill would help ordinary citizens fight bureaucracy and identity theft and act as "as a bulwark against the Big Brother society" drew laughter.

Conservative home affairs spokesman David Davis, who is among the favorites to be the next Tory leader, accused the government of whittling away at citizens' basic liberties.

He called the proposals "unnecessary" and "unworkable."

Clarke said there would be "no open access" to information, and that private companies would not be able to access the national ID register or buy data.

Only banks or other approved businesses would be able to verify identity by checking an ID card against the register, and even then, only with the consent of the ID card holder, he added.

The government is expected to amend some of the more contentious aspects of the legislation in the coming months before a final vote, in a bid to see the bill pass.

But dissenting Labor lawmakers have warned they will use "every parliamentary tactic available" in their fight against the legislation.

"This is only the beginning of the battle," said Labor rebel John McDonnell. "Such ill thought-out legislation will inevitably face difficulties throughout its passage."

When the government first publicly broached the introduction of ID cards in 2003, it said the main aim was to counter welfare benefit fraud. Since then, it has added other grounds, such as combating illegal immigration and international terrorism.

Ahead of Tuesday's debate, Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was "an idea whose time had come."

Groups representing ethnic minorities and asylum seekers are unconvinced, expressing concerns that the plan could be a source of friction between police and minority groups.

The government's own research has found 77 per cent of black Britons said they worried they would be asked to produce cards more often than their white counterparts.

The Muslim Council of Britain earlier asked for government assurances that Muslims would not be "unfairly targeted."

Even major trade unions, traditional supporters of the Labor Party, have voiced opposition to the proposed legislation.

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