A Bill that empowers the state and not the citizen

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The Independent Online

The Government's plan to introduce biometric identity cards was always a thoroughly bad idea and it has not improved with time. Indeed, the more desperately that ministers argue for the benefits of such a system, the more blindingly obvious the defects seem to be. Opinion polls confirm this: the more that is known about what was initially a popular project, the more that public support falls away.

The Government's plan to introduce biometric identity cards was always a thoroughly bad idea and it has not improved with time. Indeed, the more desperately that ministers argue for the benefits of such a system, the more blindingly obvious the defects seem to be. Opinion polls confirm this: the more that is known about what was initially a popular project, the more that public support falls away.

The Home Secretary's much-interrupted speech in the Commons yesterday contained ample evidence of what is wrong. Far from offering a single clear and logical reason why Britons should possess an ID card, he offered arguments that meandered from the terrorist threat, through identity theft, to the need to conform to new international standards. The notion that Britain had the chance to be at the technological forefront in a global progression towards hi-tech identification was held out as some sort of bonus.

Mr Clarke's efforts to demonstrate that, far from ushering in a "big brother" state, ID cards would be a safeguard against it were met with hilarity from the opposition benches - and rightly so. He insisted that an ID card would be a great convenience, and maybe it would be for some. But it will replace none of the documents most people carry at present, not a driving licence, not a bank card and not a passport - which must be applied for in addition (and at extra cost). It is increasingly apparent that this ID card is less for our convenience, than for the convenience of the state and its bureaucracy - and, so far as passports are concerned, to feed the appetite of the United States for ever more security.

Mr Clarke insisted that the current safeguards for protecting personal data would remain in force, alongside the new ID system. Yet he was hardly reassuring about the ways it would operate. The moment there is a national register, as there is intended to be, there will be the capacity for cross-checking between agencies - and abuse. The state becomes more powerful; the individual is reduced to numbers. The temptations for even a benign state are manifest.

And even if abuse can be minimised, what a bureaucratic leviathan this system risks bringing forth! The record of government departments in harnessing computer technology is hardly impressive: consider the Child Support Agency and the latest revelations about tax credits. The introduction of state-of-the-art technology into government is rarely successful immediately; recent trials showed the iris scans and face scans were not even 80 per cent reliable. Is this how we intend to enhance our national security and prevent fraudulent use of our public services?

Strangely, perhaps, it is the projected cost of the card, rather than the practice or the principle, that has probably done most to make a formerly acquiescent public more hostile. But the point is fair: why should we fund what is essentially a government experiment - especially if, as seems all too likely, it becomes compulsory to possess such a card. The cost would be just an additional tax by another name.

Our overriding objection, however, is to the principle. British residents, peacefully going about their business, have not had to own or carry proof of identity since 1952, when Churchill abolished that wartime requirement. The move was hailed as the return of freedom to a free people. To reinstate any system of ID cards, high-tech or not, drastically changes the relationship between those who govern and the governed. When the Prime Minister claimed on the eve of the debate that a national ID card was an idea whose time had come, he was wrong. It has been and gone, and it should never return.

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