<preform>Faith & Reason: Identity cards are devious, expensive and misconceived</preform>

'Who do people say I am?' asked Jesus. The question of identity is not as straightforward as the Home Secretary may think.
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The Independent Online

I was in a strange building-society branch trying to sort out an executor's form. The process involved a lot of phoning to another branch, so I had time to take in what was happening around me. A stream of people, nine or ten in the half-hour I was there, came up to the counter to start an account, pay in a cheque or make a withdrawal. Did they have identification? Had they got a utility bill? Did they have proof that they were living at that address? No, a driving licence with another address wasn't enough. No, a passport wasn't enough. No, that was a mobile-phone bill. Did they have a fixed-line bill? Yes, that bill was fine, but did they have something from this other list?

I was in a strange building-society branch trying to sort out an executor's form. The process involved a lot of phoning to another branch, so I had time to take in what was happening around me. A stream of people, nine or ten in the half-hour I was there, came up to the counter to start an account, pay in a cheque or make a withdrawal. Did they have identification? Had they got a utility bill? Did they have proof that they were living at that address? No, a driving licence with another address wasn't enough. No, a passport wasn't enough. No, that was a mobile-phone bill. Did they have a fixed-line bill? Yes, that bill was fine, but did they have something from this other list?

The staff were bored and surly; the would-be customers bewildered and exhausted by the attempt to make themselves understood. One after the other, as each negotiation came to its inconclusive end, the nine or ten dejected people tramped out again. No voices were raised, no blood was spilt, yet it was one of the most disturbing half-hours I have spent. Behind it all, an anonymous group at head office had agreed the exact combination of documents needed to prove identity. A pitiless counter staff was enforcing the regulations because that was what they were paid to do. And nine or ten people, most of whom were not using the language of their birth, were told that they did not exist enough to use the facilities of a building-society branch which, if they'd had any self-determination, they should have walked out of at the first obstructive question.

So, was I seeing a perfect illustration of the need for identity cards? Imagine: a bar code to scan, a metallic strip to swipe, and those counter staff could be instantly satisfied - that is, if they kept their jobs (which I hope they won't). I could be wrong, but it felt to me exactly the opposite: my first encounter with the obsession with identity and proof that led to the threat to push ahead with identity cards in Tuesday's Queen's Speech.

In response to the first rumblings of criticism, the Home Office has said that carrying a card will not be compulsory, that the information on one will be minimal, and that visitors and tourists need not have one. It is hard to believe that these statements will remain true, but, if so, I can't see the cards being any use all in the fight against terrorism. Illegal migrant workers, benefit fraud, and under-age drinking, maybe; but even that supposes a level of organisation and efficiency that we don't see in the present administration.

I resent everything about identity cards: the scrappy reasons we've been given for their introduction, the £3bn cost, and, most of all, the suggestion that I shall have to have one. The strength of such feelings has surprised me, and I sometimes worry that old-gittishness is setting in early. But from my earliest memories I have had a horror of not being trusted. It was well established by the time I was travelling to school by bus. Every bus ticket was stored in the breast pocket of my blazer. "Challenge me and you'll be sorry." Eventually a ticket inspector did, and was presented with a grubby bundle of old faded paper. He walked off, grumbling, and refused to hand them back. Still, at least it reduced my bust size. I continue to resent having my train ticket inspected; I refused to answer letters from the television licensing people; and all that the storecards databases will show is that I bought a pair of trousers and a few groceries in 1998 before realising that all my purchases were being logged.

Identity cards take this one stage further. What is being challenged is not whether I bought a train ticket or a television, but who I am. This is too personal, too subtle to be captured on a losable, forgeable, producible-on-demand bit of plastic. Ask me who I am and I will probably tell you. But what I tell you will depend on what I think you need to know, and your right to know it.

My religion teaches me that there is all sorts of ambiguity about identity. Jesus would never be pinned down. "Who do people say I am?" he asked his disciples. "Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah," they answered. "But who do you say I am?" "The Christ." The Bible is full of name changers: Abram to Abraham, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul. Even now, postulants take on a religious name when they take their vows in a religious order. Popes assume a new name as a matter of course. These changes are not cosmetic: we do not remain who we were born as, but grow and change, sometimes so radically that a new name is called for.

It is strange to reflect on this on the eve of Advent. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because his parents had to comply with the Roman census. He escaped death at the hands of Herod by assuming anonymity in a foreign land. Later, at his trial, who he was had become the most pressing question asked by Pilate and the others. He refused to answer.

Paul Handley is Editor of the 'Church Times'

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