Not working in the UK

by David Moss
January 2008
updated September 2009
updated October 2011

Remember the good old days? April 2004? Every employer in the country received a booklet signed by Des Browne, Documents employers should use to check the right to work. 18 documents were listed in the back and, if a potential recruit had some appropriate combination of them, it was legal to employ that person. We knew where we stood. Happy days.

They didn't last. In October 2006, the Home Office published a cost report on ID cards. They say it's often hard to ascertain who people are. It's hard for the prison service. It's hard for the Criminal Records Bureau Registered Bodies. And: "currently, employers do not have a reliable means of establishing whether a job applicant has the right to work here". Gone was the certainty of Mr Browne's 18 documents.

In their place came biometrics. 41 times biometrics are mentioned in the slim 13-page cost report. Biometrics are the answer to illegal immigration, illegal working, sex offences, false asylum claims, terrorism, identity fraud and inefficient public services. But when? When would the biometrics silver bullet be fired?

Roll forward two months to December 2006 and the Strategic Action Plan for the National Identity Scheme, published by the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). Salvation is at Annex 1 – an "enhanced employee checking service" will be "available for employers" by June 2007. But June 2007 came and went, there was no sign of our enhanced employee checking service, and there still isn't.

Why hasn't this strategic action been performed by IPS? Is there perhaps a problem with the biometrics?

There must be. Because it's not just the enhanced checking service, amongst the Annex 1 strategic actions, which is missing. "Biometric procurement" also was meant to start by June 2007, and still hasn't. And the Crosby report on public/private identity management, due by April 2007, remains to this day unpublished.

When the Prime Minister writes, as he did on 17 January 2008, that biometrics "will make it possible to securely link an individual to a unique identity", he is misinformed.

Flash back to May 2005, when the report on the UKPS biometrics enrolment trial was published. Turn to the Key Findings section of the Management Summary, and what do we find? We find that fingerprints do not work about 20% of the time.

Never mind criminals and terrorists. 20% of the rest of us aren't going to be able to prove our legal right to work in the UK either. Not if that proof depends on biometrics.

Say there are 35 million people working in the UK. 20% of 35 million is seven million. Seven million people will find themselves legally unable to work. At least one of them will bring a court case. At that point it will be discovered that the biometrics proposed for use by IPS are so unreliable that they are not admissible as evidence in court. The case will collapse, confidence in ID cards will collapse and all the money spent on them will have been wasted.

Not admissible as evidence in court? That can't be right, can it?

It can. David Blunkett himself told us so in July 2002: "The fingerprinting of asylum seekers to a legal standard of proof (unlike that suggested for the entitlement card scheme) helps to ensure that an individual cannot make more than one application for asylum and that the fingerprint evidence can be used in court".

The traditional fingerprinting technology – rolled prints, taken by police experts, using ink – the technology the world has known about for a century, and which we all, rightly, have confidence in, is admissible as evidence in court. But that isn't the technology IPS propose to use. They want to use flat prints – a glorified photocopy of our fingers, clean, quick, no expert required and utterly unreliable.

To refer to these two different technologies by one name, the same name, "fingerprinting", is a confidence trick.

Now roll forward to 14 January 2008 and Liam Byrne MP: "Illegal working attracts illegal migrants and undercuts British wages. That's why we're determined to shut it down". How? "Employers will be fined up to 10,000 for every illegal worker they negligently hire or could face up to two years in prison".

Employers remain liable even though we have no way to check the right to work. We don't have a way to check because IPS haven't provided it. And IPS haven't provided it because they can't – the biometrics on which they depend aren't reliable enough to do the job.

23 September 2009: Home Office admits that employers cannot check on the right to work in Britain

21 September 2011: United States: House Judiciary Committee Markup Of E-Verify "Legal Workforce Act" Bill

David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.