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A real threat to our liberty

(Filed: 26/06/2005)

The Government's Bill introducing identity cards receives it second reading in the Commons next week. This newspaper passionately hopes that enough Labour rebels will join the Opposition to ensure its defeat. From the confiscation of nail scissors at airports to the introduction of indefinite detention without trial, fears about terrorism have succeeded in warping many aspects of British life. The Government now insists that tackling terrorists requires the destruction of another cherished British liberty: the right not to have to carry an identity card on your person, available at all times for inspection by the police.

The practical case against identity cards is formidable. It seems very likely that the "infallible" biometric identification system will not function with anything like the reliability necessary to make the huge cost of installing it worthwhile. The computer system is bound to go the way of all government-purchased computer systems: it won't work. The incompetence, delays and sheer obstruction that has characterised the workings of the Child Support Agency since its inception do not suggest that the Government will be able to install a system capable of tracking the whereabouts of everyone in the country, identifying whether they are terrorists, and determining whether they are entitled to receive benefits.

As we report today, the Government is already considering EDS - the firm that is being blamed for the fiasco of over-payment of tax credits - as one of the suppliers of the computer system for the identity card scheme. It is not a promising start.

The Government promises that its plan will cost around 7 billion. Economists who have studied the project say that it will actually cost around 14.5 billion. If the Government is right, each British citizen will have to pay at least 90 for the privilege of carrying something that will enable the Government to snoop more effectively on his or her private life; if the economists are right, the cost to each of us will be more than 200.

Identity card systems can only work successfully if they have the willing co-operation of the population. There is no possibility that Britons will co-operate in the introduction of a system which effectively requires each of them to pay a poll tax of 90, never mind 200.

Even if the practical obstacles to identity cards could be overcome, the fundamental moral objections would remain. Labour does not seem to appreciate that Britons are entitled to do as they please without being snooped on by the Government. That may be because many members of the Government do not seem to recognise the existence of any such entitlement in the first place. From banning hunting to the latest proposal to ban smoking in pubs and restaurants, Labour has demonstrated its commitment to interfering with what people do, and to stopping them from doing it if the Government does not like it.

It is a basic principle of a free society that the Government should not monitor, snoop, or interfere with individuals unless it is absolutely necessary, not for their own good or for the good of some small group of people, but for the good of society as a whole. No one has yet demonstrated that identity cards are necessary for the survival of British society. If the Government succeeds in its bid to make every Briton carry one, the Government will have stolen one of our fundamental liberties. There will be no compensating benefits