September 24, 2003

The whole idea of identity cards is illiberal, coercive, cumbersome and extraordinarily expensive. What is more, it won't even work

Mary Ann Sieghart

IT TAKES a newcomer to a country to appreciate its best points. We natives are far too blasé to notice. So at times like this, I wish my father were still alive. He, who came to Britain at the age of 12, was a fantastic admirer of its traditions of liberty. He used to lecture us on how lucky we were to live in such a free country, and how suspicious we should be of any attempt by the State to curtail our liberties.

As a refugee from Nazi Austria, he had every reason to suspect the encroachment of the State into everyday lives. The apparatus of Nazi repression depended on knowing who and where every citizen was and which God they worshipped. My father, who became an avid human rights and civil liberties campaigner, would certainly have led the charge against compulsory ID cards in Britain.

The very thought still makes me shake my head in disbelief. Britain? That famously free country where citizens pride themselves on being able to do as they please, go as they please and live as they please, as long as they don't harm others? This is a nation that loathes bureaucracy. We are sceptical of government and see even a one-bedroom council flat as a castle. The last time ministers imposed compulsory ID cards, we rose up in revolt.

So, in my father's absence, I shall have to join the revolution instead. If David Blunkett goes ahead with his plan to introduce compulsory ID cards in the Queen's Speech this autumn, we, the law-abiding majority, must rise up and shout the idea down.

We are happy to apply for a driving licence if we want to drive a car. We are happy to apply for credit cards if we want the convenience of not having to carry wads of cash. We accept that passports are necessary if we want to travel abroad. We could probably be persuaded to carry a health card, to prove our entitlement to free NHS treatment. But we do not see why we should have to account for our very existence. That is a fundamentally un-British concept, Mr Blunkett. You, of all people, should know that.

The final ignominy is that we shall be forced to pay for the “privilege” of owning an ID card even if we don't want one. A whacking £40 is mooted, and that figure is bound to rise. Don't be mollified if ministers drop the charge. That will just mean they plan to raise our taxes instead -- and since everyone will have to have the card, the tax increase will still come to at least £40 per person, or £160 for my family of four.

For that, what do we get? Zero. An ID card will entitle us to nothing that we don't already receive from the State. But it promises the State immense power over our lives: the more information the card contains, the more power government departments will have over us, as the Nazis knew well. The benefit is one-way.

The Government doesn't even know how to persuade us to accept ID cards, except as a gimmick to delude us that it is “doing something”. Ministers' arguments slide from combating terrorism to crime, benefit fraud or illegal immigration, depending on that week's headlines. But believe me: a gimmick is what the card will be.

ID cards would not have prevented the September 11 attacks: the hijackers' papers were all in order. The police had no problem discovering who they were; they just didn't know they were terrorists. Terrorist groups don't generally rely on false identities. They recruit young men without criminal records who live as “sleepers” until they finally commit a terrorist act.

For preventing crime, ID cards are worse than useless. Countries that have them experience no lower crime than countries that don't. And the very people who profit from the existence of ID cards are criminal gangs with the technology to forge them. For, however sophisticated these cards are, they will be forged, as France discovered when it introduced “smart cards” in the 1990s. If the technology exists to create the cards legally, it exists to create them illegally.

If anything, ID cards make life easier for criminals and offer a false sense of security to everyone else. These days, to open a bank account or get a driving licence you have to produce at least three proofs of identity. Once we have ID cards, one forged card will be all that criminals need.

As for benefit fraud, only 5 per cent, on the Government's own figures, is identity fraud, and 95 per cent is based on lying about the claimant's circumstances. ID cards would make a negligible difference, and would cost far more money than they would save.

The latest justification is that ID cards would curb illegal immigration. Tell that to the French or the Italians. Anyway, British asylum-seekers are already given cards with their fingerprints on as soon as they register with the authorities. Illegal immigrants who don't apply for asylum will manage without ID cards or buy forged ones, just as they do now.

Don't delude yourself that a single ID card will be more convenient than a wallet-full of identification. It won't be. For a start, think of the palaver when you lose it, which you undoubtedly will. I am now on my fourth laminated Times security pass. I hate mislaying them, but at least the loss doesn't stop me driving, travelling, going to the doctor or paying for anything. And I can get another within hours.

How cumbersome, by contrast, will be the procedure for getting or replacing an ID card? Think Passport Agency or DVLC. This is a country which, for all its freedoms, is lousy at bureaucracy. It can't even pay out tax credits or child maintenance or process new passports. The mind boggles at the cock-ups that will surround the introduction of an ID card, which will have to be checked rigorously, for every citizen. Then, every time you lose it or change address, you will have to report to the authorities, under pain of prosecution. Call that convenience?

No, the whole idea is illiberal, coercive, cumbersome and extraordinarily expensive. What is more, it won't even work. The cost -- up to £3 billion -- is more than the entire NHS capital budget for 2003-04. I bet you can think of better ways to spend that money. I know I can.