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A Call for Identity Cards

post brexit identity card
Written by Catherine McBride

Should identity cards be a feature of a post-Brexit UK. Economist Catherine McBride argues that there is good case for introducing identity cards and that the coronavirus has made this more urgent.

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While every household has now discovered that they contain at least one control freak who is rationing potatoes or milk usage, there are also many commentators who are complaining that the Government was not prepared for this crisis. But unlike the household control freak who knows exactly how many people he or she has to feed for the period between shopping trips, the government only has an estimate of how many people they are responsible for. It is impossible for the government to adequately provide any service if they don’t have accurate population statistics.

For many years the UK population has resisted any form of identity card even though everyone unwittingly carries around a virtual identity card in their pockets – this of course is your smart phone. Our phones not only know where we live and how we pay their invoices but they also know our shopping habits, our internet search history, all of our contacts, what video games we play, photos of our children or our pets, even which maps we have used and where we have travelled. So as all of this information is already out in the ether, would this not be a good time for the government to get some formal information about us as well?

The government doesn’t need to know what video games you play or see your cat pictures on social media. But they do need to know:

  1. That you are a UK citizen and how old you are
  2. Where you live in the UK
  3. Whether you are a legal UK resident or whether you are a UK citizen residing elsewhere.
  4. That you are eligible to work, have paid taxes and your entitlements to health, education and pension services.
  5. Which elections you are entitled to vote in and whether you have already voted.

Such a card would give the government the exact number of people it is responsible for and which areas need more services, whether that is education, health or pension services. This would not only allow them to more accurately deal with the present Corvid-19 crisis but to improve all future planning for the provision of health and social care. As someone who started her working life in the financial planning department of a large multinational: I know that it is impossible for the NHS to tell if they will be overwhelmed if they do not have actuate information on the size and distribution of the UK population, let alone the number who have arrived in the UK as tourists or those that are illegally living and working here. And although some will protest that we do know because we take surveys – I really don’t think that illegal immigrates get surveyed very often and if they do, call me cynical, but I am pretty sure that they would lie about their immigration status. For proof that we have no idea how many people live in the UK just compare the UK, EU, World Bank and the CIA World Fact Book population numbers. (Before you ask: I am not a spy – it is on the internet).

Although the chancellor has generously announced financial packages for companies, the employed and the self-employed, there will now be pleas for help for those that fall though these cracks – some legitimate: such as temporary PAYE employees but also for help for illegal workers as well. Economists believe there could be a sizeable number of illegal workers in the UK but nobody really knows how many and now that lack of knowledge about this section of the population, will become the problem. We really need people who live and work in the UK illegally to feel free to walk into any NHS hospital with Covid-19 and get treated. If any national health service has a purpose, it must surely be to protect the nation from infectious diseases. Hip replacements, IVF, sports injuries are all nice to have but infectious disease control must surely be the NHS’s raison d’etre.

Although I expect that many people will be angry to know that tourists and illegal workers could be treated by the NHS for Covid-19 – when it comes to infectious diseases: it is in our own best interest to allow them to do so. A tourist or an illegal worker is just as likely to spread the disease around the country as anyone else. If they are tourists from Wuhan or another infected area, they are possibly more likely to do this, albeit unwittingly.

Although this feels unfair to legitimate citizens who now expect to benefit from the lumbering giant called the NHS that has been consuming their tax payments indiscriminately since its inception. But the illegal workforce could undermine all of the work done by the NHS if they are ignored. How so? Well for a start many are still working in manual jobs for cash and travelling to work by public transport, possibly infecting essential workers on the way. But additionally, If we don’t treat them for the virus, it will spread quickly though the cramped housing where they presumably live and so they could become a future source of re-infection of the legal population whenever the government believes that we have passed the peak and allows us to get back to work.

One way to solve the UK’s potential illegal-migrant virus incubator, would be to have a one-off immigration amnesty.

Having an amnesty of all illegal immigrants presently living and working in the UK would have several benefits: for a start it would entice illegal immigrants with the virus to use the healthcare service without fear of being expelled. But it would also allow them to receive some sort of benefit to live on until it is safe to work again. This will prevent hunger and slum living that are the breeding grounds for all infectious diseases. As we can assume that as they have not paid tax in the last three years, and therefore would not be eligible for the Chancellor’s announced payment schemes, but they should be eligible for unemployment benefits or universal credit. We know that they have been working, because at the moment they are not eligible for any benefits that would allow them to live in the UK without working so on the plus side: granting them amnesty would widen the tax base for the future repayment of all of the new debt the treasury is issuing.

But I would urge the Government not to have an open ended immigration amnesty. The UK government must first close the borders to all new entrants, easier done at the moment than at any other time, then give everyone who is here a 4 week window to apply to the Home Office. The government could grant them the same status that they are making to the EU citizens, pre-settled status, with the potential to convert this to settled status in 5 years provided that they continue to work and pay taxes legitimately. But the government must not even consider this until the borders are well and truly closed for a week and don’t allow it to apply to new illegal immigrants arriving in rubber boats – they must be returned to prevent more people attempting this dangerous journey. Therefore, what I am proposing should not apply to anyone who has been recently caught by the border force and the amnesty should definitely only be open for a very short time period. With the lock down in most of the EU at the moment and limited air travel from the rest of the world – this is possibly the perfect time to do this. I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that all of the countries who appear to have the virus under control have one thing in common: very tight immigration controls.

There are many benefits to the government for doing this. Besides widening the tax base to both the illegal immigrants and their employers. It is impossible to properly plan adequate amounts of medical care, housing or schooling if you have no idea how many people to cater for. Almost all of the best economic measurements become nonsense if you have no idea of how many people actually live and work in your country.

And with electronic passport machines, it should be very easy to keep tabs on who comes in and then doesn’t leave in the future, so this should be the last amnesty. Thereafter the government needs to implement an electronic bio card system for citizens to access all government services as well as potentially paying unemployment and pension entitlements, tax payments and voting entitlement. Estonia did this years ago. It seems crazy that the UK doesn’t do so as well – especially as we now all know that the NHS has our phone number and despite GDPR regulations, they have managed to send us all text and emails to warn us to stay inside. So any libertarian complaining about the Big Brother State’s emerging power should accept that Big Brother arrived with the smart phone but it is privately owned rather than government run.

It is now time for the government to develop a similar system, no more intrusive than a driver’s licence and no more complicated than a credit card: it will show entitlement for the provision of social and health services, tax payments, immigration status and voting entitlement. Such an identity card would also connect the major offices of the state: the Home Office, Foreign Office, Treasury and the Departments for Health, Education and Work and Pensions – ensuring that they are all using the same data base for planning future revenue and expenditure. Safeguarding that people who are not contributing, or have not previously contributed, to the system are unable to benefit from it as well as vastly improving the ability of the state to provide these benefits when and where they are needed.

I would also like to mention that it is probable that illegal immigrants do not speak or read English well or, incredible I know, may chose not to listen to the BBC or watch other UK mainstream media. Therefore they may have no idea that the government wants them to stop working or traveling on the tube and they will not be eligible for any government interrupter services. Consequently, any amnesty would have to be widely broadcast, in multiple languages, through the real big brother network – the UK mobile phone providers – they know exactly how many people have UK mobile phone numbers and even where they live.

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About the author

Catherine McBride