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‘Bullying’ by Whitehall on ID card report

Robert Winnett, Whitehall Correspondent

THE director of the London School of Economics has accused the Home Office of using “bullying and intimidation” in its attempt to suppress a study about identity cards, writes Robert Winnett. Sir Howard Davies received an aggressive phone call from Sir John Gieve, permanent secretary at the Home Office, who is said to have been delivering a “political message”. It is the latest political row to beset Gieve, who was the senior civil servant involved in the row over the fast-tracking of a nanny’s visa for David Blunkett’s lover.

Davies, who has lengthy experience of dealing with senior ministers, said the response of Charles Clarke and his officials to the university’s research on ID cards last week had left him “genuinely shocked”. LSE governors claimed the Home Office had tried to delay publication until after last week’s finely balanced vote in the Commons.

The home secretary accused the LSE, regarded as the academic birthplace of new Labour’s “third way” ideology, of “fabricating” research which indicated that the true average cost of ID cards would be £230 per person. Clarke earlier described the study as “mad”.

Davies revealed that he had been subjected to a series of aggressive telephone calls before the study was published on Monday. “They are stepping over a line that hasn’t been crossed before,” he said. “On the one hand they say it (the ID card) is not an attack on civil liberties, but then, if anyone questions any aspect of it, they abuse you and accuse you.

“I have read the report myself and I’m completely satisfied it is a rigorous piece of work. Ministers may disagree with it or they may not, but the idea that it is deliberately biased or fabricated seems to me to be fatuous. I am genuinely shocked, surprised and disappointed at the response.”

Davies declined to name the official responsible for the calls but other sources confirmed it was Gieve. Davies said: “I don’t really want to get into individuals but it was approaches from individuals clearly acting on behalf of ministers. I’m sure they were delivering a political message.”

Davies, who was knighted in 2000, spent 20 years working in government before he took the LSE job in 2003. He had been a special adviser at the Treasury, head of the Audit Commission, head of the CBI, deputy governor at the Bank of England and head of the Financial Services Authority.

He said he had never before experienced attacks such as those meted out by the Home Office. “This kind of bullying and intimidating behaviour is just totally unacceptable. They are not even arguing on the facts,” he said.

The research, which was conducted by 14 professors, concluded that the cost of the cards could be up to three times what the government had announced. It said the scheme could be “unsafe in law” and raised concerns over the viability of the technology.

Several LSE governors fear research funding may now be in jeopardy. One governor said: “The behaviour is beyond the pale and is more suited to a communist dictatorship than a democracy.”

Lord Grabiner, chairman of the governors and a Labour peer, said: “Howard Davies has already made a statement which I agree with. We don’t take very kindly to interference with academic freedom. Also, we think the work was done independently and objectively and in the good academic tradition.”

Professor Lord Giddens, the former director of the school credited with developing “the third way”, is expected to criticise the government’s response during the ID card debate in the House of Lords.

Yesterday a spokesman for Clarke said: “The home secretary stands by his comments about the LSE study.” He confirmed that Gieve had contacted Davies but denied any bullying.