The agreement to consult widely on how such a card might work, rather than announce a desired strategy, reflects majority backing among Cabinet members for a voluntary scheme.
Senior figures from the centre-left such as Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, left the Prime Minister in no doubt of their opposition to compulsory cards. Even the right-wing 'bastards' were split. Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, is opposed on broad libertarian grounds, but not so Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Employment.
The Cabinet decision to proceed cautiously left Mr Howard with no alternative but to bridge the gap between giving the conference what it wanted to hear and singling out the 'possibility' of a single card, used as both driving licence and benefit card, which would be voluntary. 'No, no,' said representatives at that point in his speech.
At times struggling to make his point, Mr Howard said a joint driving licence/benefit card would mean three-quarters of the population would have one. 'No one else would be forced to get one but I believe that in time the vast majority would.' 'Now, now,' came the reply.
New technology could also make it possible to replace a wallet full of cards with just a single bit of plastic: Bank card, driving licence, social security card, kidney-donor card. 'Rubbish,' came the cry from the audience.
In a marked contrast to last year's 27-point law and order crackdown, yesterday's speech contained just one further initiative - an extension of courts' powers to seize criminals' assets. These currently apply only to drugs cases. 'For too many crooks, crime can pay. They sit in prison gloating over the fat bank balance that's waiting for them when they get out.' He made no reference, however, to the removal or downgrading of prisoners' perks, on which decisions have still to be made.
Delegates, however, left Mr Howard in no doubt of the direction they want policy to take.
Hugh McKinney, from Peckham consitutency association, said: 'It is time to start punishing criminals and stop indulging them. Mr Howard, lock the doors, stop home visits, take the telephones out of the cells. Prison must again become a place to be feared, not a place to be ridiculed.'
The Home Secretary also came under fire over feared cuts to police resources. Kate Wood from Wallasey, a member of the Merseyside police authority, said: 'We face cuts of some pounds 13m in our police budget, 500 to 600 officers are likely to go. I would want to ask the Home Secretary not to spoil the achievements but to really respect the police, really encourage them and also to fund them.'
While insisting that the victims of crime 'must never be forgotten,' Mr Howard revealed no new measures to help them.
Leading article, page 17
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