Leading article: Taking a lead - but in the wrong direction

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The Independent Online

First we had the delay, now we have the fudge. A few weeks ago it slipped out that the timetable for ID cards had been put back so that they will not start to be issued in serious numbers until after the next election. And yesterday opponents of the scheme were handed a series of supposed concessions by the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith.

The Government had originally planned to harvest "biometric" details (fingerprints, eye or facial scans) from everyone applying for a new passport from this year. And by 2010, we were told, everyone issued with a passport would also be forced to acquire an identity card. Yesterday Ms Smith confirmed that the introduction of new biometric passports will be delayed until 2012 and also revealed that people will be allowed to use the new passports for identification purposes, rather than having to acquire an ID card at the same time.

Yet anyone who thinks the scheme is being given a discreet burial is mistaken. Non-EU nationals will be issued with compulsory ID cards later this year. And Ms Smith yesterday announced that airport baggage handlers and people in security jobs will get them in 2009. She also announced that students will be able to "volunteer" to hold the cards from 2010, to help them open their first bank account or take out a student loan.

It is quite clear what is going on here. The Government is trying to defuse the political impact of the ID cards issue by putting back the timetable. And yet ministers are pushing ahead with the partial introduction of the scheme in the hope that its universal roll-out will begin to look inevitable. In short, the Government is trying to introduce ID cards by stealth. The targeting of young people seeking student loans is particularly sinister. And let us not forget that the plan for a National Identity Register remains.

The justification for ID cards regularly trotted out by ministers is that they will boost security, tackle identity fraud and help prevent illegal immigration. None of these arguments stands up to scrutiny. One of the 7 July London bombers took his driving licence with him on his suicide mission. How exactly would an ID card have helped prevent this crime?

The benefits of ID cards for combating fraud have also been grossly oversold. Most identity fraud seems to be done online or by correspondence. ID cards would surely have pretty minimal value in these sort of remote transactions – unless we are to be required to conduct all our dealings with officialdom in person from now on. But it would be wrong to get bogged down in specifics. ID cards and the National Identity Register are fundamentally illiberal, an unjustified incursion on our privacy, and should be rejected on those grounds. They are also increasingly unpopular. A few years ago, opinion polls showed that the public was broadly in favour. But the episode of the missing data disks last year has demonstrated how careless civil servants can be with our personal information. Support for ID cards has shrunk correspondingly.

That is not to argue that public popularity should be the Government's sole guide when making policy. But it does serve to illustrate the madness of the present situation. This Government consistently shies away from action that might make it unpopular in the short term (curbing carbon emissions, making the argument in favour of the EU) but that would deliver considerable benefits further down the line.

Yet by persisting with this ID card scheme, the Government is drawing down unpopularity on its head for no particular gain to the nation. The one time this Government decides to take a lead, it charges off in the wrong direction.