Editorial | Widen discussion on National ID
The unease of Jamaicans For Justice's Rodje Malcolm with Section 41 of the proposed National Identification and Registration Act is not, on the face of it, without merit, especially to those who believe - among whom this newspaper counts itself - that there is a responsibility on the State to support its most vulnerable citizens.
But there is a danger, ahead of a fulsome debate of the bill, to exaggerate the likely negative impact of the section, which is the essential foundation of the scheme, without which it will, if not crumble, lack the hoped-for effect. In this regard, it is important and urgent that Prime Minister Andrew Holness lead a deep and broad discussion on the law, including on its aims and objectives and what his Government intends to contribute to its success.
As we understand the bill now before Parliament, the law will require every person living in Jamaica to register as part of a National Identification System and receive a unique number that will supersede a host of numbers issued by a range of government agencies.
The bill makes it mandatory for people to register under the system, but has no specific penalty for failing to do so - except for Section 41 (I). It says: "A public body shall require that a registered individual submit the national identification card issued to him to facilitate the delivery to him of goods and services provided by the public body and the registered individual shall comply." Private companies may ask their customers to produce these cards to facilitate transactions, but, unlike with the delivery of government services, the client will be under no obligation to comply, which would probably be unconstitutional.
In other words, if you want to do business with or access service from the Government and its agencies, the national identification number and card, which will include biometric information, will be necessary.
Mr Malcolm, however, fears that an "inadvertent" consequence will be to exclude some citizens from core services and other public goods, such as education and passports, to which citizens are constitutionally entitled. We previously warned that constitutional questions such as Mr Malcolm's were likely to arise.
It is worth noting, though, that doing almost any business with the Government and accessing most services requires a Tax Registration Number, or a social security number. However, having these numbers is not obligatory for all citizens, as will be the case with the proposed National ID arrangement.
The Government has said that providing all Jamaicans with a unique identification number, and a central database with biometric information, will improve its capacity to plan for service delivery. But the more urgent expectation is that it will help to improve security in a high-crime country where people are often informal with their names and fluid with their addresses. In the new environment, a person will be who he is, whatever name he gives. The bio-data will be available to prove the fact in specific circumstances, once appropriately requested.
This is a potentially powerful anti-crime weapon. But there is a fear of government intrusiveness and abuse, Big Brother style. Assuaging these concerns is the big job for Prime Minister Holness. And the response is not necessarily a retreat from the law or elements thereof. Mr Holness has to have a fulsome conversation with Jamaicans about what he hopes to achieve, what stake each segment of society has in it, the contributions they are willing to make, and what trade-offs they are willing to abide.
A good starting point would be a clear demonstration from the prime minister that his Government not only says it, but is actually intolerant of corruption. If people trust their government, they are more likely to do what it asks.