The former British prime minister, who first advocated national ID cards more than a decade ago, says the scheme could help governments better manage immigration
ID cards needed to tackle illegal migration, says Blair
Identity cards are needed to address the problem of illegal migration, according to Tony Blair, former prime minister of the UK.
A new report on Thursday from his Institute for Global Change recommends “a system of digital identity verification” which could help manage the flow of new arrivals and pick out those who have entered illegally. It could also potentially give citizens greater control of their own personal data.
In 2006, Mr Blair’s Labour government attempted to introduce national ID cards in Britain, but the proposal proved deeply controversial due to concerns over civil rights. The scheme was eventually vetoed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats when they formed their coalition government in 2010.
However, the debate about identity cards has now moved on thanks to advances in technology, argues Harvey Redgrave, senior policy fellow for immigration at Renewing the Centre, who authored the report.
“Frankly, it’s a very different debate compared with ten years ago,” Mr Redgrave, who is also managing director of Crest Advisory, told The National. “The technology that exists today - compared with the last time Tony Blair advocated this when he was prime minister - is completely different.
“Many of the things that people were worried about last time, about having a giant centralised government database where all of your data gets stored, no longer needs to be worried about. In a digital world, this stuff could be stored on a phone, in an app, in a digital wallet.
“That also means the costs are likely to be far lower. And it could also be a way to give citizens better access to public services, whether it’s things like booking doctor appointments or opening bank accounts.”
Mr Redgrave points out that 25 out of 28 European Union countries already have some sort of ID scheme. He cites the example of Estonia, whose eID card system is one of the most advanced in the world and has become the basis for all the digital services that are available in the country, from electronic voting to online banking. “So ID schemes do make illegal migration harder, but they also have other benefits too,” he said.
Mr Redgrave acknowledges that there may be pushback against such a proposal, particularly in the wake of the Facebook data breach, which saw the personal information of 50 million users of the social media platform used to target voters and sway public opinion.
“I think you might get a bit of that, in the current climate” he admits. “But I think most people’s view would be that they already hand over vast amounts of their own data to the likes of Facebook, Spotify, Google and Amazon. Here, we’re talking about a very limited amount of biometric data being handed out on each individual, that is essentially there to verify that you are who you say you are, and that’s going to protect you against fraud, identity theft, and make it easier for you to do simple things like open bank accounts.
“I think most people will be fairly commonsensical about it and see it as an inevitable upgrading of technology, rather than as a sinister plot to use people’s data and commercialise it.”
Mr Redgrave also pointed out that the scheme wouldn’t necessarily involve physical ID cards at all, thanks to new technology. “It may not require people to have a card at all,” he said. “We’re talking about a secure digital identity.”
The report claims governments have lacked a coherent policy framework in responding to immigration. Too often, policies are driven by political short-termism, addressing the symptoms of public concern rather than the underlying causes.
As a result, citizens have lost faith in their governments’ ability to manage the system, which in turn has fuelled new forms of authoritarian populism.
The paper puts forward a number of recommendations designed to meet the challenge of managing migration in the 21st century.
Aside from a system of digital identity verification, it also calls for the adoption of human capital points-based systems, labour-market reform to reduce exploitation in the workplace, and a national strategy for social integration to drive greater social contact and encourage an inclusive citizenship.
The intention, the report says, is to give policymakers the tools to move away from “crisis-led policymaking” towards a more progressive framework to deliver immigration policy.
With the flow of people across borders steadily increasing and now at record levels, the paper says it is critical for governments to develop a credible policy agenda on immigration.
“Most people… want reassurance that the flow of new arrivals is properly planned for and managed, and that the laws are fairly enforced, with illegal migration tackled rather than tolerated. These are not unreasonable demands,” Mr Redgrave says.
“The longer such demands appear to be unmet, the more space populism is given to thrive.”