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A free country
By Stephen Robinson
(Filed: 20/06/2003)

There was a certain amount of scepticism last year when the Government launched one of its beloved consultation periods for "stakeholders" to express their views on "entitlement cards", the Home Office's preferred euphemism for ID cards. There was no surprise, then, when the consultation turned into a cod referendum, and the Home Office declared that the 2,000 people who had responded were split two to one in favour of the cards. This alleged response led to artfully spun reports of overwhelming public support for the ID scheme, which was variously presented as a fix-all solution to global terrorism and bogus asylum seekers.

But the Home Office had not counted on nine enterprising young people who work in the IT sector and who, in their spare time, run an unfunded website that encourages their peers to take part in such national debates. They posted a form on their site - www.stand.org.uk. This was not a petition, just a mechanism for readers to participate in the consultation procedure. They were gratified that more than 5,000 people used their service, of whom 4,856 were against the scheme.

The Home Office initially dismissed these responses, and stuck to the claim of overwhelming public support for ID cards. That all changed this week, when the Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes belatedly acknowledged in the Commons the existence of Stand's response. Thus, the overwhelming public support has vanished, and, by the only measure that has been taken, ID cards can be deemed unpopular.

Yet still the Home Office dithers, refusing to say what it intends to do. It seems driven by its authoritarian instincts to press ahead with the ID scheme while lacking the political courage to say so.