The Government chose the last day before the parliamentary recess to publish its promised "action plan" for the introduction of identity cards. And it came with one agreeable surprise. Plans for a huge national database have been shelved. The Home Office will make do with three databases they already have. This marks a welcome retreat from the technological gigantism that has marked so much government computerisation.
In other respects, however, the "action plan" confirms most of what we knew and feared. A national ID card is to be introduced from 2009 and become compulsory the following year. It will contain basic personal details, along with biometric data embedded in a microchip. In a tacit recognition that some people could still fall through its net, the Home Office simultaneously announced that it wanted foreigners already living in Britain also to register their biometric details.
The effect of these twin announcements was to bring compulsory ID cards in Britain one step stage closer - at a time when MPs were about to disperse and most other people were focusing on seasonal festivities. That there was no great outcry yesterday, however, does not make the arguments against ID cards less compelling. They will be expensive; they will produce a bureaucratic monster; above all, they will enhance the power of the state at the expense of our envied civil liberties.
The Government offers two non-sequiturs and a fog of populist rhetoric in its defence. It argues that the pledge on ID cards was in Labour's election manifesto, implying that this provides an automatic electoral mandate. The mandate, though, depends on Parliament, which was deeply split on the issue. The Conservatives are committed to repealing the legislation, should they win the next election.
Ministers also argue that a majority supports ID cards, as though a majority view necessarily confers moral acceptability. But it is not even certain that there is a majority. Survey questions tend to be posed in the context of the supposed threat from terrorism or illegal immigration, and so are calculated to solicit an answer in the affirmative. They are almost never posed in the context of civil liberties and the British way of life. Nor is it proved that either terrorism or illegal immigration - the two evils ministers insist they are designed to tackle - would be curbed, let alone prevented, by ID cards. The US, from where our own government has taken so many policy ideas, has no national ID card and no plans to introduce one, despite the security panic precipitated by the terrorist attacks of 2001. The US, it seems, recognises that forgery, multiple identities and the like are endemic in the underworld of terrorism and illegal migration, and an ID card would do little to change this.
Britons are already among the most closely observed people in the developed world. We have more CCTV cameras per head than any other country in Europe or North America. Our DNA database contains 3.5 million samples, of which more than one million belong to individuals without a criminal conviction. The proposed road tolls would require satellite tracking devices that would monitor the movements of every motorist. Details of the NHS database were released this week.
We believe ID cards will be an illiberal intrusion into our lives and create more problems than they will solve. We also note that when the Home Secretary said yesterday he was abandoning the idea of a national database, he set out his reasons as follows: "We have decided it is lower risk, more efficient and faster to take the infrastructure that already exists." This is hardly a reassuring comment on the original plan. Perhaps the whole project can now be reassessed in a similarly common-sense light.