Benefits tourism could mean backdoor ID cards

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doctor

The row over ID cards for British citizens raged for years, and after over £5 billion was wasted, the idea was scrapped. Now, in a classic case of unintended consequences, there's a chance we could end up with them after-all, in a move to stamp out 'benefits tourism' in the NHS.

So how could it happen?


'Benefits tourism'

The 'benefits tourism' debate has been raging ever since the government announced that it would do what it could to stop newer members of the EU coming to the UK purely to claim benefits.

David Cameron has made it clear he's revisiting the 'habitual residency' test, which only requires people to be resident in the UK to qualify for benefits. The idea is to introduce a requirement to have been resident for a particular period of time.

NHS

Now, according to a report in the Daily Mail, the discussions have extended to include NHS care, with the suggestion that people should have to live in the UK for a certain period - possibly up to a year - before receiving free access to the NHS. The idea is to stop sick people travelling specifically to access free care.

The idea was raised in an open letter to Jeremy Hunt from Frank Field and Nicholas Soames - who co-chair a group on balanced migration.

Cameron has already expressed his support for restricting free care to those who travel to the UK from outside the EU. According to the Telegraph In February he told a group of B&Q employees: "We're not tough enough right now about people coming from the other side of the world who decide to use our health service. They haven't contributed in their taxes. They should pay when they use the NHS."

Cards

In practice, however, the only way that restricting access to care would work is if people carried ID cards of some description to prove they were entitled to care. This was one of the main arguments put forward by the Labour Party in support of the cards.

David Blunkett said in 2003 the cards would ensure "people don't work if they are not entitled to work, they don't draw on services which are free in this country, including health, unless they are entitled to".

So will this mean an ID card via the back door?

There are plenty of obstacles to overcome first. One of the most significant is the fact that the European Commission has already made it clear that it will oppose plans to restrict benefits to new immigrants, so plans to restrict free healthcare will go down just as badly. The UK would have to get this past the EC first.

Then there are the civil liberties groups that made life so tough for Labour when they wanted to introduce ID cards - they're unlikely to go down without a fight.

Liberty said at the time there were any number of reasons not to have a card, not least because they intrude on privacy and pose a security risk because of the government's poor record on data security.

The campaigns chimed with a large number who were concerned about the cards. In 2008 some 25% of people were strongly opposed to their introduction.

It leaves the government in a tricky position. They've executed some astonishing u-turns in their time, but this may just prove to be a step too far.

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