Ex-MI5 boss criticises 'useless' ID cards

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The Government is coming under pressure today to rethink its plans for identity cards, after a former security service boss warned they would not make Britain any safer from terrorists.

The former director general of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, said she did not believe her former agency was pressing for the introduction of ID cards.

And she warned they would be "absolutely useless" unless they could be made unforgeable.

Her comments led to calls from opposition parties and civil liberties groups for the Government to abandon the scheme, which the Home Office estimates will cost £5.8 billion, while critics claim the bill could reach £40 billion.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said Dame Stella's comments were "yet another nail in the coffin of the massive identity card folly".

Speaking to the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham, Dame Stella, who retired as head of MI5 in 1996, said: "ID cards have possibly some purpose.

"But I don't think that anybody in the intelligence services, particularly in my former service, would be pressing for ID cards.

"My angle on ID cards is that they may be of some use but only if they can be made unforgeable - and all our other documentation is quite easy to forge.

"If we have ID cards at vast expense and people can go into a back room and forge them they are going to be absolutely useless.

"ID cards may be helpful in all kinds of things but I don't think they are necessarily going to make us any safer.

"That's my personal view."

Dame Stella's remarks came as ministers suffered a defeat in the House of Lords on their controversial ID card legislation.

Peers backed a Tory amendment to ensure that only those who reasonably required proof should be entitled to ask for verification of identity.

Shadow home secretary David Davis said: "Yet again we see that the Government's arguments for ID cards are completely bogus.

"Stella Rimington would know better than any government minister the security value of ID cards.

"What she has demonstrated is that they will be a spectacular and probably counter-productive waste of money - an unnecessary incursion on people's privacy."

And the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said: "When someone of Stella Rimington's experience expresses these doubts in this way, the Government should listen and abandon this scheme before wasting more taxpayers' money.

"Tony Blair is always saying that we should listen to the experts. This time he is the one who should be listening."

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties pressure group Liberty, said: "Stella Rimington's insight is yet another nail in the coffin of the massive identity card folly. The plan should be scrapped and the billions of pounds spent on operational intelligence and policing.

"Sadly, the arguments that ID cards will protect the UK from terrorist attacks are largely unconvincing. The men responsible for the 9/11 and Madrid terrorist attacks had valid identification."

Michael Parker, spokesman for the NO2ID campaign against identity cards, said: "This is no news to us, the fact that ID cards won't help fight terrorism one iota, the fact that they are not the high-tech unforgeable utopian solution the Government desperately wants them to be.

"I am glad that someone as senior and as knowledgeable as Stella Rimington has come out and said something so sane.

"NO2ID would hope that this will come as a persuasive suggestion to the Government that it should really seriously rethink its policy before it wastes a spectacular amount of public money.

"However, I fear they will react in the same way they have all along, putting their heads in the sand."