We don't need to have this identity crisis

Rather than an assault on civil liberties, Frank Field's drive for a DNA fingerprint card is a just cause
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The Independent Online
A compulsory identity card imprinted with the DNA genetic fingerprint of every citizen has just been proposed by Frank Field, the Labour MP and chair of the Commons Social Security Committee. He wants a universal database aimed at stamping out benefit fraud and solving crime. The DNA blood test virtually proves identity. Mr Field would like the tests given to every baby at birth and to all newcomers to Britain. His committee is publishing a report in the autumn, and he hopes that Labour will take it up as a firm policy.

A yelp of fright and indignation greeted this suggestion. "Impossible," "Certainly not." "The civil rights issues are far too sensitive" were some of the instant Labour responses yesterday. Chris Smith, Labour's Shadow Social Security Secretary, rules it out as a Big Brother scheme. Jack Straw reiterated Labour's long-standing objection to compulsory ID cards, but supports a voluntary scheme.

The passions aroused by the issues are visceral and atavistic - but scarcely rational: an over-mighty state looms, the all-seeing eye peers into the soul of our very genes, empowering every petty official and busy-body. The recent heated debate on ID cards in Cabinet forced even Michael Howard to retreat. Rational or not, it touches deep chords from left to right: an Englishman's word is his identity and only jack-booted foreigners make citizens carry cards.

Deeper lies another fantasy: any of us could break free at any time, take a train to a new town, become a new person without a history. It is that fantasy which makes amnesia cases such powerfully romantic stories. But of course the world has not been like that for a very long time. Legally, you may change your name, but you still have your old National Insurance number, your previous work record, your tax record, so the law never lets you disappear. We all already carry invisible ID cards.

But Frank Field is, as ever, persuasive on the subject. When he starts talking about his committee's evidence on social security fraud, he makes a powerful case for identification of all citizens. He suggests that the Government's estimates of pounds 2.5bn of benefit fraud are well short of the real figure.

There are, for instance, a staggering 15 million National Insurance numbers free-floating in the system that no one can account for. A very large proportion of those may be being used for fraud by highly sophisticated and organised gangs that thrive on the ease of gaining a false identity.

Anyone can claim a dead or living person's NI number without their knowledge. He cites a recent case where parents whose twin babies had died 18 years ago got a call to say one was held in a detention centre - a case of stolen identity. A man who went to register as unemployed was told he was already in prison. A benefit fraud investigator recently found that his own NI number was being used by someone else to claim benefit. When someone dies, no mark is made on their birth certificate, nor does the registrar ask for the deceased's NI number to ensure that the departed is struck off.

"People talk about fraud as if it was women with a boyfriend on the side, or someone doing a bit of extra moonlighting. But most of the money is lost in large-scale organised fraud involving false identity," Frank Field says. His ID cards would be issued at birth, with each person's NI and NHS number, their DNA, an updated photograph and coded information on their date of birth and address, which would, he believes, make false identity benefit fraud practically impossible.

In September the Benefits Agency starts a rolling programme of new cards for claimants, but they are not ID cards. They will stop theft of order books and save huge printing costs, but in themselves they will do little to make it harder to acquire a card on a false identity.

They will not carry photographs. The signature on them will be readable and thus easy to copy. There will be no chance for counter clerks to read secret information and ask the claimant questions such as their address or date of birth - a basic check that even firms such as Blockbuster make on renting out a video. However, these cards could well be adapted in future.

The real objection to Frank Field's scheme does not concern civil liberties but basic practicalities. It currently costs pounds 44 a time for a DNA blood test - try multiplying that by 56 million, plus the cost of the whole system and the database. He claims it will catch rapists, but the number of rapes by strangers is small and the number of times blood is conveniently left at the scene of a crime hardly justifies such gigantic cost. The police are not pressing for it.

Frank Field may find himself out on a limb on this issue, since most of the experts say there are plenty of simpler, cheaper ways to tighten up on the true identity of claimants without the need for the entire population to carry ID cards. An interesting test will come when the Government is expected to launch voluntary ID cards. Either no one will apply for them or they will rapidly become essential for most transactions. If they do become de facto compulsory, will that undermine our basic civil liberties? I cannot see why the law-abiding need feel threatened.