Major now favours compulsory ID card

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The Independent Online
COMPULSORY identity cards may be introduced by the Government as part of the Conservative Party's offensive against social security fraud and crime.

The Prime Minister is discussing a scheme under which all social security claimants would need an identity card to obtain benefits. This system might, over a period of years, be extended to compel all citizens to carry ID cards.

Underlining a key change of tack on the issue, a Downing Street source said that, until now, 'ID cards have always been assessed in terms of their efficiency in solving crime. Once you add social security it tilts the case quite a lot.'

The re-examination of identity cards - which will enrage civil liberties groups - is also part of the Government's determination to catch foreigners who claim benefits illegally.

Singling out people on benefits for an identity card system would almost certainly be opposed by the Labour Party. A card would probably carry a picture, address and National Insurance number.

But Mr Major's renewed interest marks a change of mind for the Government - which appeared to have shelved proposals for a scheme last year. Ministers had come under pressure to introduce a Continental-type identity card system, both because of rising crime and because of the European Community's 'open borders' policy, which threatened to remove national controls.

It was resisted by the Home Office, which would have been responsible for the scheme, because of the inevitable row over civil liberties. Officials also argued that identity cards would damage race relations because ethnic minorities would suspect harassment when documents were checked.

The re-emergence of the issue comes at a time of rising anxiety over violent crime, following the shooting last week of PC Patrick Dunne in Clapham, south London, and football hooliganism in the wake of England's match against Holland in Rotterdam.

But the initiative has arisen more from a desire to reduce social security spending, with Mr Major increasingly persuaded that identity cards are the best hope of eradicating an estimated pounds 1bn a year in social security fraud. Although no formal decision has been taken he is said to see 'the attraction of going down that road'. At present there are only more limited plans to introduce bar-coding into benefit books.

Downing Street now accepts that identity cards would not help in the battle against large-scale crime or drug-dealing but believes they could revolutionise the campaign against social security fraud. The costs of introduction would almost certainly be offset by savings on illegal claims.

Mr Major will try to retain the focus of attention on law and order this week at a special European Community summit in Brussels on Friday. With Germany's support, Britain will press for more work on Europol, a European version of the United States's Federal Bureau of Investigation, designed to help EC countries swap high-level intelligence on drugs or Mafia-style money-laundering.

This organisation will build on the work of Interpol but would have a more restricted membership and encourage European police forces and customs officials with specific expertise to work with each other on secondment.

At the Commonwealth summit in Cyprus last week, Mr Major increased pressure on Commonwealth countries to join the Financial Action Task Force which proposes measures to curb money-laundering.