Good news for anti-ID campaigners.
Anti-ID views from a traditionally "respectable" lobby.
Published: November 30 2004 02:00 | Last updated: November 30 2004 02:00
There are so many benefits of having identity cards, according to the government, that ministers should probably be resigning for their failure to introduce them earlier. ID cards will help the fight against terrorism and organised crime, expose illegal immigrants, protect public services against fraud and fend off identity theft. Since passports will soon include biometric data, cards will cost a bargain extra £35 a head, plus public investment of £3bn.
Yet British people walk around without ID cards for good reasons - including the impossibility of producing the promised benefits without draconian legislation. There are important risks in the scheme that ministers fail to acknowledge. And the cost is likely to be much higher, as the experience of government information technology projects has shown.
ID cards, as the prime minister and home secretary both say, are no guarantee of security. The terrorists who attacked the US on September 11 2001 travelled under their own identities. The Madrid bombers were not deterred by Spain's ID cards.
Cards will have to be produced within 24 or 48 hours of a request - little deterrent for illegal immigrants, money-launderers or drug traffickers. Meanwhile, millions of visitors, who may include terrorists and criminals, will not be carrying the ID card. Both drawbacks could be remedied by making it compulsory to carry such ID - but that would be an unacceptable change in the relationship between the individual and the British state. As for welfare fraud, sick people are unlikely to be refused medical treatment because they cannot produce a card - and nor will the penniless be left to starve. And since false passports and false driving licences are readily available, ID cards will be no guarantee against forged identity.
Indeed, identity theft could become easier if ID cards are accepted as sole proof of identity. And criminals will quickly get access to the national identity register - as they already do to other government databases.
Last, the government's record on big IT projects gives no confidence that the scheme will be introduced on time or to budget - or even at all. Earlier this month, the National Audit Office highlighted the serious shortages of public sector staff with the necessary project and programme management skills. It found that fewer than a quarter of projects reviewed were going smoothly, and a quarter were in serious trouble. Shortly after, the catastrophic failures of the new IT system at the Child Support Agency were revealed, with the minister in charge threatening to pull the plug on it.
Ministers believe they can sell ID cards to the electorate in the current atmosphere of fear and insecurity. But the experience of wartime identity cards shows how quickly they can become unpopular once the immediate threat has waned. If the government persists with its plans, it will eventually be punished at the polls.