ARTICLE FOR THE OBSERVER ? 3rd July 2002
Policies are like houses: if they have been on the market for a long time it is a fair bet there is something wrong with their foundations. Unfortunately for David Blunkett, he could not be aware that the idea of compulsory identity cards has been hawked around Whitehall for years. By all accounts he has now bought the policy and will issue a consultation paper shortly.
Its appeal is obvious ? it combines the two essential New Labour ingredients, populism and modernism. To the small ?c? conservative voters who Labour want to attract it sounds a simple way of controlling illegal immigrants, criminals and welfare fraudsters. Libertarian concerns that we should be presumed innocent and left free to go about our business without having to justify or identify ourselves, seem remote. Yet at the same time the idea can be presented as ?modern? because this won?t be any old ID card but an all singing, all dancing smart card.
The last government was offered the same idea by every new minister for IT as the remedy for all our ills from crime to shortage of kidney donors. Each Department was invited to identify problems which smart cards could cure. I pointed out that normally one starts with an illness and looks for a treatment. Only quack medicines claim to cure every ailment before they are even diagnosed.
On critical inspection, claims that smart ID cards would solve all our woes evaporated. The police explained that they almost never had problems identifying suspects only in catching and convicting them. The security services explained that (as the 11th September terrorists showed) terrorists rarely conceal their identity and being foreign would in any case not be entitled to a British ID card. The immigration service explained that all illegal immigrants can, and most do, claim asylum at which point their fingerprints are stored on a central computer and they are given an identity document without which they cannot legally obtain benefits or jobs. (Quite why Blunkett wants to make them carry a smart card with their fingerprints in the chip is a mystery since they would surely be identified by their actual fingerprints which they are unlikely to forget to carry with them!) Paradoxically, although I was the main opponent of? compulsory ID cards, I was introducing a benefit payment card to replace the insecure and easily forged Order Books and Giros. But I could see no reason why non claimants should need such a card nor would it be necessary for claimants to carry it except when accessing their money. The Labour government scrapped that card claiming that it was too difficult to computerize up to 20 million claimants. How then can they hope to run an ID card for 60 million of us?
We decided that compulsory smart cards were a pretty dumb idea and shelved it. Now it seems that Sir Humphrey has dusted it down and persuaded David Blunkett (of whom I expected better) to swallow it as gullibly as Jim Hacker.
The scheme may be pointless but is it dangerous to our liberties? Surely carrying an extra piece of plastic would be no threat to the innocent?
There is every difference in the world between cards we carry voluntarily and being compelled to carry one. If you forget your credit card it is an inconvenience. But if you step out of your home without your compulsory ID you would commit a criminal offence. If you fail to notify the government of a change of address you would commit a criminal offence. If you fail to report that you have lost it you would commit a criminal offence. Even though the card would probably not help catch a single villain it would criminalise many thousands of absentminded, forgetful and inefficient people!
If it were not compulsory to carry one?s ID that would render the whole scheme pointless. Yet Blunkett has said that initially he will not make it compulsory to carry his smart ID. It may be that he intends, as proposed in a back bench bill used to fly the kite of compulsory ID cards, that the police would be empowered to escort suspects home ignominiously to get their card. That would be compulsion in all but name.
Like many ideas which are widely popular when first mooted compulsory ID cards can lose their appeal fairly rapidly once people begin to thick about their implications. That was certainly the case in Australia. When the Labour government announced a similar scheme it received overwhelming support in the polls. But as its implications emerged support began to wane. A massive campaign was launched. Concern focused particularly on its implications for privacy. Eventually the polls showed nearly 90% against the proposal and it fell in the upper house.
I look forward to Blunkett?s plan suffering a similar fate.