Leading article: An ID card identifies only a love of power

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The Government's scheme for a voluntary identity card is half- baked. Whitehall appears to be in disarray. The Northern Ireland Office is the latest department to register its doubts. It is worried by the presence on the card of the Union flag, which could easily look like a die-hards' political statement. Why all the political bother for the sake of a voluntary card? But if not the Union flag, then what? In the Tory party's present state, all European signs and symbols are going to be divisive. And what goes on the card in, say, Scotland? Will the Scottish Office not insist on some Scottish identifier? Before you can have an identity card, you have to have an identity. Little wonder further delays are expected for an announcement already overdue.

The Government's confusion is significant. In terms of practical governance it says something about the inability of departments to speak to one another, or even set up the rudimentary machinery that allows a cross-departmental decision to be taken; this is an old Whitehall problem which the Tories lately have made worse. Identity cards cut straight across the turf. The Transport Department has its own logistical nightmare in trying to transform our pink and anonymous driving licences (and how many people still have the old green ones?) into Euro-approved photo-bearing licences within less than five years. Do we need both those and ID cards? The Department of Social Security has its plans for a claimants' card which, given its current atavistic mood, will probably include blood and DNA samples as well as photos and thumb prints. Meanwhile, there are complicated plans afoot involving the Treasury, Inland Revenue and the DSS to change the administration of National Insurance - a reminder that we already have national identification in the UK: we just call it NI and health service numbers. As for the Foreign Office, one of the ostensible purposes of the exercise is to provide a Euro-identifier acceptable to the police of other member states ... but what is wrong with a passport?

A national ID card is unnecessary and the Government deserves all the embarrassment it faces for not having thought more about it - preferring instead to dance to Michael Howard's ambitious piping. The problem is not just Ulster and its evidence that identity (and identification) cannot be imposed. A few years ago another ambitious Tory Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, got a well-deserved pasting for his attempt to impose identity cards on football supporters. Memories of that may have persuaded the Government away from making cards compulsory. To work, identity cards need to express consent (a lesson you might have thought had been learnt by a government that was forced to leave millions unpoll-taxed). When consent goes, the government and its police officers and soldiers and computers and tax officers approach powerlessness - and no true Conservative, or indeed anyone with sense, would wish that.

The argument against even a voluntary card is that we already possess several voluntary identifiers, from licence plates to debit card numbers, and no reputable case has been made for adding a ''Howardcard'' to their number. But, says Mr Howard in reply, there is a good reason for a card and it is crime. "Crackdown on crime may boost Howard's stature," a sycophantic newspaper said the other day, conveniently eliding the appearance of doing something with actual changes in criminal behaviour or the effectiveness of the police. But how are voluntary cards going to be used to reduce crime? Isn't producing them going to be regarded as a ground for suspicion - in which case they cease to be voluntary? In how many instances of policing is the precise, photograph-assured identity of a person an issue in the detection or solution of crime? That, of course, is an empirical question, requiring evidence of a kind Mr Howard seems so reluctant to commission or consider.

There are, it's true, a number of specific problems in the state's relations with its citizens for which, superficially, ID cards provide an answer. Most have to do with public-sector fraud. Here the proponents of cards suffer from an acute attack of disproportion. Those who get so excited by social security fraud forget the scale of tax evasion, notably in the corporate sector. It is as if ripping off the state by claiming benefits falsely were so much worse than ripping off the state by under-declaring earnings or those complex schemes of avoidance which respectable firms of accountants are paid in gold to devise.

Should we all have identity cards because some company finance directors break the law? Of course not. So why then the hammer of a national scheme to crack the nut of housing benefit claims? Reducing such fraud involves painstaking, long-haul tracking by dedicated council officers, not gimmicks.

The state has a right and a duty to identify and number its citizens. It does this in many ways, through censuses, tax schemes and lists of many kinds. It would have the right, too, to concentrate some of the data it holds in a new, machine-readable card. But why? Every proposal to expand the ambit of the state demands the closest inspection. That principle of limited government used to be one that united members of the Conservative Party. They could be relied upon to twitch their noses at any scent of government taking liberties. What has happened to a party that could once be relied upon - right or wrong - to sound a warning? Is the corruption of that Thatcherite love of state power still so strong in Mr Major's government that it can, still, proceed with a proposal with so little serious internal discussion? One look at Michael Howard and the only answer is yes.