Identity cards won't stop the terrorists: they're only a fig leaf
By Stephen Robinson
(Filed: 24/07/2003)

Before venturing into the dangerous territory of opposing David Blunkett's scheme for compulsory identity cards, I apologise in advance for further enraging readers such as Vernon Evenson of Medway, who emailed this week to say that we had gone mad. He is by no means alone in this view.

A common thread runs through the hostile responses we have received to our campaign against Mr Blunkett's proposal that we all pay £39, get fingerprinted or have an image taken of our iris, and then be logged into a central government computer and issued with a new "smart" card.

The argument of those who support Mr Blunkett goes roughly as follows: the country is becoming lawless, there is no respect for the police or authority, and tens of thousands of bogus asylum seekers are exploiting our "soft-touch" immigration laws and jumping ahead of our mothers in the queue for a hip replacement.

I don't necessarily agree that this is an accurate picture of Britain today. Personally, I think that one day we will need all those young immigrants to pull us out of our demographic trough, but I sort of see what people mean. Mr Evenson is cross that this paper appears to be banging on about "liberty for the sake of liberty", a concept "that only Guardian readers can afford to indulge in".

Mr Evenson might be surprised to learn, however, that he is in a minority of our readers in supporting the Blunkett scheme. As of yesterday afternoon, 488 emails had been sent to us at in the 11 days since we raised the issue. Those siding with us against Mr Blunkett outnumber Mr Evenson and his supporters by about seven to one.

This volume of correspondence is unprecedented, vastly exceeding the response to anything I have written before. Many of those who support us begin with a disclaimer: "I am no Left-wing civil rights fanatic, but...", and then they go on to express revulsion that the British are to be monitored like the Poles were under Jaruzelski, and the Chinese are today.

People old enough to remember the wartime ID cards abolished in 1952 have joined forces with middle-aged and younger readers to express their alarm. Quite a few who work in computer and web-based businesses have written, because they know how intrusive technology can be when harnessed to the sort of "smart" chips that Mr Blunkett wants to put into the cards.

One thing has become clear: should the Home Secretary succeed in passing the legislation he plans to introduce in the autumn, millions of people will resist, and thereby become technically criminalised, placing a huge new burden on the police.

The "libertarian" or "liberal" argument against ID cards is that they fundamentally shift the balance between the rights of the individual and the state. They reverse the common law presumption of innocence, by imposing a requirement on a person to prove who he is, even when acting perfectly legally.

But there are serious practical objections, too. Industry estimates put the cost of the scheme at more than £5 billion, dwarfing the Home Office estimate of £1.5 billion. An ID card will lead inevitably to "function creep", so that though in theory it will not be compulsory to carry one at all times, without the card it will become impossible to draw money from a bank, perhaps even board a train.

Then there is the point about forgery and identity fraud. These cards are supposed to last 10 years or so: does anyone doubt that a card based on technology developed in 1993 would by now have been mastered by gangs of forgers? And if you are wondering why the price of a new passport has just risen to £42, from £18 when Labour took office, it is because you are being softened up for the introduction of the Blunkett card.

But to return to Mr Evenson's central argument, and all those asylum seekers swarming into Britain. This is an important point, because there is absolutely no doubt that it is because of the Government's failure to get to grips with asylum policy that these cards have emerged as a political fig-leaf to suggest that "something is being done".

In a BBC Panorama special on asylum broadcast last night , an undercover reporter posing as "Mihaela" claimed to be a refugee from Moldova who had just arrived at Harwich in the back of a lorry. She told the immigration officers that she feared her boyfriend would beat her up if she was sent back home. Though she had no papers whatsoever, the immigration officers apparently had no option but to let her into Britain, adding ruefully: "Please let us know when you have an address."

This is insane. To allow an individual to walk freely into the country without any papers, and with no means of support, is both absurd and cruel. And it undercuts Mr Blunkett's claim to be making Britain safe in the "war on terrorism", one of the key arguments used to justify the ID cards.

"Mihaela" doesn't have an ID card; she doesn't have any papers at all, but still she goes on her way, whether she is a fictional Moldovan with fictional domestic problems, or an al-Qa'eda suicide bomber.

Mr Blunkett could address this absurdity very simply, either by interpreting the immigration laws more rationally, or - if necessary - temporarily derogating from the relevant clauses of the Human Rights Convention. But so far he has not tried to explain why forcing Britons in Torquay and Edinburgh to carry ID cards would make any difference to the authorities' ability to turn the asylum tide.

If Mr Blunkett gets his way and these cards become law, several outcomes are certain. All of us will be poorer, and not just for the £39 the card will cost. People like Mr Evenson will obediently go to the police station to have their irises scanned, confident - in the words of the ID card enthusiasts - that if "you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear".

Others, including the scores of our readers who have already declared themselves ID resisters, will become criminalised. We will all be less free, and no more safe; and Mr Blunkett will still be talking about a "tough new initiative" to crack down on those anonymous characters who will still be walking unchallenged through the gate at Harwich.