Big brother is coming...

...and sooner than you think. Identity cards will become reality within three years as MPs vote to begin the process on Tuesday. But why? What will ID cards mean for ordinary citizens? Will they be weapons against terrorism, or sinister tools of the state? Andy McSmith, Political Editor, looks into the (near) future
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Indy Politics

This is not a scene from a futuristic movie: it will happen to you, and it will cost you. One day, you will go to a government office, such as the London Passport Office near Victoria, and be shown to a reception area, where you will fill out a form, giving your name, age, gender, postcode, and ethnic background. You will be ushered into a booth, where you will face a hi-tech camera, which will speak to you in a voice like a dalek's.

This is not a scene from a futuristic movie: it will happen to you, and it will cost you. One day, you will go to a government office, such as the London Passport Office near Victoria, and be shown to a reception area, where you will fill out a form, giving your name, age, gender, postcode, and ethnic background. You will be ushered into a booth, where you will face a hi-tech camera, which will speak to you in a voice like a dalek's.

The machine will tell you not to grin while it scans your facial measurements. It will instruct you to sit forward and watch the two ellipses in the camera lens while it examines your irises. When the machine has finished with you, you will put four fingers and a thumb on a glass scanner, so that your fingerprints can be entered on a national database.

When the visit is over, you will be the latest entry on the national register, with your unique National Identity Registration Number (NIRN), a piece of plastic like the one pictured on the facing page, and an invoice for around £100, or much more according to some estimates. For the rest of your life, the Government will know who you are.

Identity cards have been a talking point for so long that it might seem like an idea that is never going to happen. In fact, it is just a few years from becoming part of the way we live. On Tuesday, the government whips in the House of Commons will round up Labour MPs to restart the legislative process for introducing ID cards, against the combined opposition of the Tories, Liberal Democrats, some of the smaller parties and at least a dozen Labour rebels.

The last attempt, before the election, ran out of time when the House of Lords obstructed it, but Tony Blair is determined to see the measure on the statute book before he leaves Downing Street. This time, there does not seem to be anything to stop him. There are plenty of Labour MPs grumbling, but the number who will vote against the Government is small enough to be manageable, according to the whips. If the Lords tries to block the legislation, the Commons will use the Parliament Act to override it.

From 2008 - unless Parliament proves more rebellious than expected - it will become increasingly hard for anyone to avoid the expense and inconvenience of obtaining an ID card. Anyone who renews a passport or driving licence will be obliged to acquire a card at the same time. The Home Secretary will have the power to specify that certain groups of people - such as benefit claimants - must have them. Using false information to obtain a card will be a criminal offence carrying a two-year jail sentence. Anyone caught with a fake ID card or any hacker caught trying to tamper with the national register could face 10 years in jail.

Further into the future - unless the experiment is brought crashing down by rising costs, computer failure and political opposition - the whole population will be obliged to own one of these expensive bits of plastic. And, for the first time ever, the Government will have a complete and constantly updated list of everyone living in the UK. If your name is not on the register, you will be liable for a £2,500 fine.

But what is it all for?

During the general election, Labour party canvassers had an easy time selling ID cards like a medicinal compound. Whatever the worry was - be it immigration, terrorism or crime - identity cards would fix it. Opinion polls and canvass returns alike showed an overwhelmingly positive public response. Michael Howard, the Tory leader, saw which way opinion was blowing and ordered his reluctant troops not to oppose ID cards. That helps to explain why, despite being so enormous in its implications and so clearly laid out in Labour's manifesto, the proposal received almost no national publicity during the campaign.

There is some evidence now that popular support is falling away, but it is a very long way from where it was in the late 1940s, when the Labour government, under Clement Attlee, faced a middle-class revolt rather like the recent protests over fox-hunting. Identity cards had been introduced as a wartime measure, and it outraged respectable citizens that they were still expected to hold them in peacetime, in the days when George Orwell was writing 1984.

In December 1950, a motorist named Clarence Henry Willcock, the 54-year-old manager of a dry-cleaning firm, was stopped in north London by PC Harold Muckle. There was no implication he was doing anything wrong and he flatly refused to produce an ID card. PC Muckle therefore arrested him. The case went to a Court of Appeal, where the Lord Chief Justice reluctantly upheld Willcock's conviction, but he added damningly: "The police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of national registration cards whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause.

"To demand production of the card from all and sundry," the judge added, "is wholly unreasonable. To use Acts of Parliament passed for particular purposes in wartime when the war is a thing of the past tends to turn law-abiding citizens into lawbreakers."

A few months later an incoming Tory government abolished compulsory ID cards. They then became one of those totemic ideas favoured by people with very hardline views on law and order, until 11 September 2001 made them a politically acceptable anti-terrorist device.

Anyone who has recently visited the United States is familiar with the technology that instantly records visitors' fingerprints and iris imprints. Visitors from the UK will soon be required to have "biometric" visas, which will cost $100 (£58) a time. In the circumstances, Tony Blair believes, it makes sense to replace old-fashioned British passports with "biometric" documents, which will cost nearly £80 each. Why not add a requirement to have an ID card, for an extra £15 or so?

The Home Office argues it will frustrate international terrorists, 35 per cent of whom travel under false identities. That invites the obvious riposte that 65 per cent use their own identities, and Spanish ID cards did not prevent the terrible Madrid train bombings. But when fear of terrorism was at its height, public opinion was prepared to accept the Government's argument.

Months passed, and the public's fear of being killed by a terrorist bomb receded. Then, as 10 countries prepared to join the EU, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, suggested that a very good way to meet public fears about immigration would be ID cards. They would be compulsory for anyone who wanted to apply to stay in the country for a period longer than three months and employers would have no excuse for hiring anyone without proper identification. Mr Blunkett also had an answer to rising costs in the NHS. If everyone who is entitled to use the NHS had to produce ID, it would prevent "health tourists" from arriving to claim free treatment.

Most recently, government focus groups have turned up an increasing number of people who fear having their identity stolen by criminals. A Cabinet Office study in 2002 estimated that identity fraud costs the economy at least £1.3bn every year - but, never fear, the new Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, has the answer. It is, of course, ID cards.

With so many good reasons for having them pouring from the government machine, the voice of the civil rights lobby has been almost drowned out. Guy Herbert, the general secretary of the NO2ID campaign, is convinced that the cards will not be as benign as they will sound when Mr Clarke speaks about them in the Commons on Tuesday. "The system offers a ready-made police-state tool for a future government less trustworthy than the current one," he claims. "A home secretary could create classifications of individuals to be registered as he sees fit, introducing onerous duties backed by severe penalties for fractions of the population.

"A variety of people have good reason to conceal their identity and whereabouts - for example, those fleeing from domestic abuse, victims of honour crimes, witnesses in criminal cases, those at risk of kidnapping, undercover investigators, refugees from oppressive regimes overseas, those pursued by the press, those who may be terrorist targets."

But the polls show that his is currently a minority view. There is growing suspicion about ID cards, but it is more about the cost and the potential for something going wrong than about civil rights.

The Government has estimated that when the scheme is up and running, it will cost £584m a year, or £93 per card issued. The Treasury is not offering to meet the cost, so the implication is that the whole amount is going to have to come from what adults pay for their first card, penalties for replacing lost cards, and fees to accredited organisations that are allowed to use the national register to run checks on individuals.

The scheme's defenders say combining ID cards with passports and driving licences will substantially reduce the net cost. It has also been suggested that teenagers should get their first ID card free, when they reach 16. It is accepted that if welfare claimants are going to be compelled to have ID cards, they cannot also be expected to pay for them. All this points to a fee of about £100 per card for those who have to pay.

However, the Home Office figures are only estimates. The London School of Economics thinks they are grossly optimistic, and that the true cost could end up at around £300 a card. Mr Clarke dismissed that figure as "mad". But even if he is right, there are numerous Labour MPs who ask whether ID cards are the best way to spend that sort of money.

Another source of alarm is the possibility of computer breakdown. One has only to look at recent fiascos in the Passport Office, Child Support Agency or tax credits system to know that government departments and computers are not always a happy mix. This raises the alarming idea that some great computer failure could one day mean that no one in the country can renew their driving licence or passport, or do anything else that requires them to prove their identity.

Tony Blair may discover in years to come that it is one thing to push legislation through a mildly rebellious House of Commons, but arriving at that nirvana when a little piece of plastic frustrates the terrorists, health tourists, fraudsters, people-traffickers and identity-stealers could be a lot more difficult.


A way of life in Europe, but a step too far for the States

Identity cards are an accepted part of everyday life in many Western democracies, such as France, Italy and Spain - but in countries with an Anglo-Saxon political inheritance, including the United States and Australia, they are regarded with lingering suspicion.

While French or Spanish citizens do not appear to regard a demand for " vos papiers" as an infringement of their traditional liberties, the thought of having to produce evidence of identity for any official wanting to see it carries overtones of fascism for English-speakers. In the US the Bush administration has been accused of many assaults on civil liberties in the name of the "war on terror", but compulsory identity cards have never been proposed.

That has not stopped "government-issued photo ID" being required for all kinds of routine transactions in the US, from entering a bar to boarding an internal flight. The substitute, as in other countries without official identity documents, is a driving licence. So essential are they that states issue "licences" to non-drivers - not for driving, but to enable them to prove who they are.

Even in countries accustomed to identity cards, there are differing degrees of intrusion. Under the Salazar dictatorship, Portuguese identity documents had a colour code to indicate whether or not you were "suspicious", and today, like Spanish cards, they still carry the holder's birthplace and parents' names. In Spain the most important information on the card is the number, which all Spaniards know by heart - "better than my mother's birthday", as one put it.

Spanish ID has the print of the holder's right index finger, but proposals in France for a new electronic, computer-readable identity card which would include fingerprints, a signature and a photograph have caused an angry debate, similar to that in the UK.

Nor have the authorities come up with any more plausible reasons than their counterparts in Britain for hi-tech cards. Terrorism? It did not prevent the Madrid bombings. Identity theft? The French government has been unable to produce figures showing that this is a problem.

Raymond Whitaker