Leading Article: No to a licence for state intrusion

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WHEN driving licences were first devised in 1904 it no doubt seemed unnecessary to quibble over a gentleman's identity. Today the task of coping with Britain's 32 million drivers demands a more rigorous approach. By some accounts, thousands of people sit the driving test on behalf of nervous friends. The police cannot immediately reconcile licence with licence- holder, because the present European Union licence, introduced in 1985, does not bear a photograph. Brian Mawhinney, the Transport Secretary, is therefore right to propose changes to the format.

Dr Mawhinney's suggestion for a licence much like a credit card, to include a holder's photograph, has attracted criticism from some civil liberties activists. They fear that such a document would herald a slow, but inevitable, progress towards the introduction of a compulsory identity card, whose coded information would restrict the citizen's freedom and enable the state to pry. These are two separate and unequal arguments.

Driving licences around the world carry photographs, even in countries as sensitive to individual liberties as the United States and Australia. Every year, thousands of British motorists uncomplainingly acquire International Driving Permits, which need photographs, as they set out on travels outside the West. The benefits for law-abiding drivers certainly outweigh any vague threat to age-old freedoms.

A murkier question is that of any other information the new licence might contain. There is talk of a 'smart card' driving licence which could incorporate an electronic memory chip. Nobody could quarrel with the encoding on a licence of a motorist's driving history, including convictions, or his blood group or organ donor wishes. Go beyond that - a national insurance number, say - and the danger is that the driving licence could become the only acceptable proof of identity - an identity card by another name.

The issue is one of choice. Millions of people are impatient to get driving licences. But many others, particularly the poor and the old, cannot or will not drive a car. A document that cannot apply to everybody should not enjoy the status of a compulsory passbook, as tends to happen in the United States.

'Smart cards' have their uses, as millions of French credit card holders know. The new French credit cards allow the user to punch in a confidential number code at the supermarket check-in or the petrol pump. But, once again, the user is choosing whether or not to have the card. Even in Britain, the Royal Bank of Scotland is now offering cheque guarantee cards with photographs. Photographs on the driving licence, then, are fine. So are all the tricks technology can offer in a sliver of plastic: just so long as it remains a licence to drive and not a licence for the state to intrude.