Shami Chakrabarti: One cheer for Blunkett on ID cards

In fairness to the former Godfather of this folly, old habits die hard

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Where were you? How did you feel when you first learned that David Blunkett had changed his mind about ID cards? Did you fear the former Home Secretary had been the victim of some bleeding-heart liberal identity theft? Perhaps you found "more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance"?

Mr B knows a turning tide. Where once he spoke of "widespread support for an ID cards scheme", he now acknowledges that "people do worry" and I say - good for him.

My "worries" lie in the huge threats to privacy, race relations and liberty more generally, posed by this grandiose ambition. Databases are a fact of modern life, but being specific about purpose is vital to protecting privacy. There is no need for GPs to see my tax information, immigration officers to see my shopping habits and so on.

As the "national identity register" had been justified in such fickle ways (immigration control, benefit fraud, terrorism, etc.), the amount of information on it and access to it, would inevitably escalate over time. Despite biometric passports for international travel, the repeated use of an immigration justification for ID cards provided a clear indication that border control would move to our city streets and ethnic minorities in particular, would be hassled for their "papers". Then the small matter of the multi-billion pound cost of the project. In the boom years it seemed extravagant for something that wasn't going to cure cancer or conquer Al-Qua'ida. In the current climate the figures seem positively obscene.

In fairness to the one-time Godfather of this multi-billion pound folly, old instincts die hard. A closer inspection of Blunkett's remarks reveals that, in addition to the uncontroversial suggestion that Government should concentrate on making passports more secure, he would like people to be required to have them, whether jet-setting or not!

So, even under his partial retreat package, at a time when many are worrying about food and fuel bills, Britain would be subject to a new regressive tax and internal passport requirement. As the British Airline Pilots Association said when airside workers were chosen as guinea pigs for the compulsory scheme : "This is nothing but coercion. Promises that ID cards would be voluntary have been broken... This is both unacceptable and demeaning and we will resist."

In recent months and years I have watched the people of an old but still resilient democracy slowly waking up to the importance, not just of their personal privacy but their other fundamental human rights and freedoms as well. When intrusive surveillance is used to police school catchment areas, mild-mannered MPs are raided and peaceful protesters are subjected to arrest or much worse, few now believe that the innocent have "nothing to fear".

Maybe people are just tired of all the preachy politicians who constantly wag an authoritarian fore-finger at the people whilst the other hand rummages around the till.

So let's nail down the coffin of the grand ID folly, tighten up surveillance powers and remove innocents from the DNA database. Let's also remember that there is no privacy protection in Magna Carta or other "ancient" texts. Better to go looking in the much-maligned Human Rights Act.

The writer is director of Liberty

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