Leading article: Impaled on several hooks

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Two quite separate issues were in play during yesterday's Commons debate on ID card legislation. The first was whether, how soon and on what terms Britain would have a national identity card. The second related to prospects for the Government's legislative programme and, specifically, to the future of the Prime Minister. Defeat on any of the major amendments could have given succour to Labour rebellions expected this week on the smoking and terrorism Bills and, further down the line, on schools reform.

In the event, the Government won the votes it needed even though the Prime Minister was stranded in South Africa. The next test of its legislative programme will be the counterproductive and unnecessary "glorification of terrorism" clause in the terrorism Bill. Until then, Mr Blair can breathe relatively easily.

If the Government is now off this particular hook, however, it has impaled itself on several others. Nothing about yesterday's debate suggested either assurance or competence in the Government's approach. What ministers had offered as a concession - a stipulation that ID cards would not be made compulsory without additional legislation - was exposed as almost meaningless. Anyone applying for a passport would have no choice about being included in the planned national database, even before new legislation was passed.

In rejecting the Lords' amendment requiring a full estimate of the cost, MPs have, in effect, signed a blank cheque for a project already estimated in hundreds of millions of pounds. Given the Government's record on computerising anything, the prospects for an accurate national database being developed and made to function efficiently at reasonable cost would appear to be negligible.

The far greater objection is the "Big Brother" principle at the heart of this legislation. With so much detail about individuals on record and - we are told - capable of cross-referral, the freedom we have taken for granted to engage unhindered in any activity that is not expressly prohibited would be severely undermined.

Ministers have argued, as Gordon Brown did again yesterday, that ID cards will make it easier to deter identity theft, illegal immigration, unauthorised use of public services, and - of course - terrorism. Their point is that the interests of national security must, on occasion, outweigh the claims of civil liberties.

Yet the effectiveness of ID cards is by no means proven - Lord Carlile, who is the official reviewer of anti-terrorism laws, says he now believes they are of only limited value against terrorism. This misguided Bill thus offers the worst of both worlds: it will curb freedoms we prize without even fulfilling the purpose for which it was supposedly conceived.

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