Ill-judged comments from a police chief

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It should have been unthinkable for Britain's most senior police officer to endorse a controversial government policy in the run-up to a general election. But that is just what Sir Ian Blair has done. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police appeared on television yesterday to support the Government's plans to introduce ID cards, arguing that they would be a useful counter-terrorism tool. He did so regardless of the Liberal Democrat opposition and Conservative scepticism over the scheme.

It should have been unthinkable for Britain's most senior police officer to endorse a controversial government policy in the run-up to a general election. But that is just what Sir Ian Blair has done. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police appeared on television yesterday to support the Government's plans to introduce ID cards, arguing that they would be a useful counter-terrorism tool. He did so regardless of the Liberal Democrat opposition and Conservative scepticism over the scheme.

What prompted Sir Ian to make this intervention was the conviction of Kamel Bourgass for plotting terrorism. Bourgass, a failed asylum-seeker, had used several identities while in Britain - something that appears to have helped him to avoid detection by the authorities. But by assuming that a system of ID cards would have helped the police to catch up with Bourgass sooner, Sir Ian is guilty of faulty reasoning. The fact is that asylum-seekers already have to carry identification and have their fingerprints taken. And neither Sir Ian, or the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, have been able to explain how requiring everyone in Britain to carry such cards would help the police to track down terrorists. There is no evidence to suggest that ID cards would make the slightest bit of difference. They would simply give the state more opportunity to intrude needlessly into our lives.

Sir Ian also argued this weekend for the creation of more specific anti-terror laws, including making "acts preparatory to terrorism" a criminal offence. But this plea too, coming in the wake of the Bourgass trial, was unconvincing. Sir Ian seemed to suggest that under this law Bourgass's eight suspected accomplices would not have walked free. The harsh reality that Sir Ian should ponder is that the police's evidence was tested in court and found wanting. Indeed, the closer the case is examined, the weaker the evidence seems. It does not, however, present any justification for exploiting public concern over terrorism to make the police's job easier.

Sir Ian argues that the Bourgass case shows "there is a real clarity now that al-Qa'ida affiliates are targeting Britain". But the only link between Bourgass and al-Qa'ida comes from the testimony of a solitary detainee in an Algerian jail. It is unclear whether this detainee was tortured; certainly, his evidence has been contradictory. Regardless, the threat that Bourgass posed seems to have been consistently - and deliberately - overplayed by the Government.

This is no time for complacency. But neither is it a time for ill-judged new laws that could result in further erosion of civil liberties. And Sir Ian, who is new to his job, should perhaps think rather more carefully before making such ill-judged interventions in an election campaign.

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