Leading Article: A question of identification

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The Independent Online
WINSTON CHURCHILL returned as prime minister in 1951 committed to 'setting the people free'. One of the first acts of his administration was the repeal of the National Registration Act, which required all citizens to produce on request an identity card and to notify the police of any change of address. There was a strong feeling that ID cards were to be tolerated only in times of national emergency. This libertarian view carries less weight with the new breed of Tory preoccupied with illegal immigration, terrorism and rising crime rates.

The agenda for the Conservative Party conference will contain an unusually large number of calls from constituency associations for the introduction of identity cards. The Government recently reaffirmed its view that a compulsory scheme would be too costly to contemplate. But there is growing interest among Conservative backbenchers in a voluntary scheme. The suggestion is that such a system might be necessary if the European Commission succeeds in its insistence that border controls be abolished next year as part of the European single market. The Home Office refuses to discuss this possibility because it is 'hypothetical' - which is taken by some MPs as an indication that the Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, is preparing for a deal on open frontiers, rather as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, compromised on VAT.

At first glance the concept of a voluntary identification scheme might seem ludicrous. But this is the procedure in France and Italy (Germany and Spain have compulsory schemes). Two years ago, the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons made a powerful case for a self-financing, voluntary system that could be applied throughout the EC. Those producing the appropriate papers should, it was suggested, be free to move across internal EC frontiers. This is close to the position taken by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, in May, when he said: 'We accept that EC citizens should travel freely (within the EC), but obviously we have to check that they are EC citizens.'

A voluntary scheme would meet one fundamental reservation voiced by Liberty and similar groups: that 'identity documents' - for example, driving licences, passports and bank cards - should be acquired 'by choice and for a specific benefit'. Some people might consider an ID document, recognised throughout the EC, to be worth holding and paying for. They could acquire one just as people obtain passports. Those who objected could continue to identify themselves in an ad hoc manner.

The other main objection to identity cards is that their introduction could give unscrupulous police more power to harass members of ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups. This is an argument that can as easily be reversed. At present people questioned by the police have no form of identification that must be accepted as valid. ID cards would fulfil this task. Moreover, the law should continue to forbid random searches and require police to have reasonable suspicion before asking for identification. It is unlikely that the introduction of ID cards would do much to deter crime. But, given these safeguards, there could be no principled objection to their reintroduction as part of a deal that permitted open borders.