Charles Kennedy: Clarke has a chance to turn away from populist policies

I am wary of an over-mighty state and the record of this government does not inspire trust
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The Independent Online

Charles Clarke's sudden promotion is a huge opportunity for the Government to recalibrate its approach to home affairs. He could make amends for the damaging and populist policies of his predecessor that undermined our civil liberties. The new Home Secretary could have started by urgently explaining how he is going to put right the wrong of holding people without trial, following the law lords' landmark decision. But he didn't. And on Monday, he has another chance when we debate the draft legislation for ID cards. But I am not holding my breath.

Charles Clarke's sudden promotion is a huge opportunity for the Government to recalibrate its approach to home affairs. He could make amends for the damaging and populist policies of his predecessor that undermined our civil liberties. The new Home Secretary could have started by urgently explaining how he is going to put right the wrong of holding people without trial, following the law lords' landmark decision. But he didn't. And on Monday, he has another chance when we debate the draft legislation for ID cards. But I am not holding my breath.

In 10 years' time, if this law is passed, it will be compulsory for everyone to have an ID card. It could be needed to access your GP, get hospital treatment, perhaps to use the cash machine at the bank. As a Liberal Democrat, I am instinctively wary of an over-mighty state and the track record of this government does not inspire trust. We already have plenty of ways of proving who we are - a bill or bank statement, driving licence or passport. Why do we need an ID card?

The civil liberties arguments against such cards are powerful. I am instinctively suspicious of centralising so much information about individuals. To make this work, there will be a new national database of everyone in the UK - with names, addresses, age and gender and the possibility of a fine for failing to keep data updated. Yet in London alone, hundreds of thousands of people move at least once a year. Many change their name through marriage. Even if an accurate database can be constructed, the errors will quickly mount up and such errors could result in individual cards being rejected.

Two years ago, it was estimated this would cost £3bn to set up. Today, the figure is £5.5bn and will increase. It is complicated technology - untried and untested on this scale. That should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who experienced the passport mess in 1999 - with thousands of people queuing in the streets because the computers could not cope; the national air traffic control system which was delivered five years late; or problems with the Child Support Agency and tax credits.

On Thursday on the Today programme, I challenged Charles to pause and re-think, before rushing ahead with ID cards. But he just talked about "greater security". This is typical of the "climate of fear" approach which now lies at the heart of government policy, and it's flawed. Would ID cards have prevented 11 September 2001? Those who flew the planes that crashed into the twin towers were travelling under their own names. In Spain, people have ID cards, but that didn't stop the Madrid bombing. Here, the current proposals exclude visitors and tourists, while determined forgers will probably find ways around the system.

On the other hand, there is evidence from Germany that members of ethnic minority groups are harassed by officials demanding ID. The relationship between the police and, for example, young Muslims is already fragile and it is surely in all our interests to find ways to include, rather than alienate, this important group.

As for helping in the fight against crime and illegal immigration, the Metropolitan Police says that, with the exception of "identity fraud", it knows of no evidence that ID cards will reduce crime. The problem isn't identifying people under arrest; it's catching criminals in the first place. And employers are already obliged to carry out identity checks on job applicants.

It is true that opinion polls show a majority of people are in favour of a single ID. Carrying one card instead of a wallet-full certainly has its attractions. But what if you leave it at home? Or refuse to carry one on principle? When Australia considered compulsory ID cards, at first the public was hugely in favour. But when issues of cost and convenience had been fully explored - as well as the implications for privacy - the mood changed dramatically and the scheme was dropped.

In the past 12 months, more than 250,000 passports have been lost or stolen. What happens if you mislay your ID? Without it, you could be denied access to vital public services such as hospital treatment or benefits.

This whole proposal - which is being rushed through Parliament - is an overcomplicated wheeze. Instead of getting everyone to pay for a piece of plastic, if the Government really wants to tackle crime and security matters, why not use the money more effectively and recruit extra police?

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