British government plans to introduce national ID cards have run into deep trouble just weeks before the scheme was to have been flagged in the Queen's Speech.
Foreign Minister Jack Straw has warned that the multi-billion pound plan could be "a major government debacle". Chancellor Gordon Brown and Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott are also reported to be set against it.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the UK civil rights group Liberty, told Aljazeera.net, “I’m not a betting woman but I’d say the odds now are less than evens that ID cards will be mentioned in the Queen's Speech.”
Referring to the political spark that brought down Margaret Thatcher, she added, “It does smack a little of the poll tax and obviously there are great concerns about that.”
One problem for Tony Blair is that having come out in support of ID cards at the recent Labour Party conference, he cannot drop the scheme without also losing face. On 15 October, he again described the proposals as “right in principle”.
But with cabinet splits adding to the threat of backbench rebellions and campaigns of civil disobedience, the goalposts of what the government actually wants from an ID card system, seem to be moving daily.
“It’s shifting sands,” Shami said. “ID cards have been offered as a magic bullet to benefit fraud in recent months, and as a solution to the problem of asylum seekers. They’ve been suggested as a cure for terrorism and for all I know, it will be global warming next.”
“The most concerning thing is that there has been no rational justification for how it will solve any of these problems.”
One MP with a justification for ID cards is Martin Linton, the former Home Affairs Committee member who devised the prototype for the current scheme.
"If you’re going to have laws,” he told me, “then you need some way of enforcing them and if we don’t have a way of establishing people’s identity, then public services are open to fraud.”
Blair (R) and Deputy PM John Prescott are at odds over ID
“There are 138 million bankers’ credit cards in this country which are identity cards but this simple government-sponsored ‘entitlement card’ could replace everything from your library ticket to your driving license, bus pass, benefit entitlement card, pension and passport. It will save the Treasury and the country a lot of money.”
Yet the Treasury is said to have warned the Home Office that the fee for the card would have to be considered as a tax. Leaks have suggested that British citizens might have to pay up to £40 each for their ID cards. Linton believes this is an over-estimate.
Initially, Home Secretary David Blunkett said he wanted ID cards to be compulsory, but under pressure he backed down. Whether carrying - and showing - the cards would be optional remains foggy, though.
According to the chair of Britain’s Police Federation, Jan Berry, “If people aren’t forced to carry ID cards, they will have less value. But to build up trust and credibility in the first instance, they should be kept voluntary to show people their benefits and dispel some of the fears.”
Martin Linton developed the argument. “The police would not have powers to stop you and ask for your ID card,” he asserted. “It would not be like the pass laws of South Africa or even the system in France.
“It would actually improve race relations because it would make it easier for asylum seekers to establish their rights and entitlements to work, education and health care.”
In the migrant welfare field though, this is a minority view. Keith Best, the chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service was concerned that the measure might increase racial discrimination.
“We don’t think ID cards will have any significant effect on stopping illegal immigration,” he said. “We do think that the police might use them in a discriminatory way, particularly against black people, as they did under the old sus laws.”
The sus laws, short for “on suspicion”, gave police the powers to stop and search anyone they suspected of having committed – or being about to commit – a crime. The practice was disproportionately targeted at young black males.
Shami Chakrabarti agreed. “If anyone is going to be required to produce these cards, it will be minority communities and, post-9/11, Muslims in particular. It’s worth remembering that if you are required to carry these cards, it’s not just a police officer who could ask you to produce it, a racist thug could do the same.”
Race and asylum are the areas where the row over ID cards is being most keenly felt, apart from tax.
Martin Linton’s view that “the only people with anything to fear from ID cards are those with something to hide” is not shared by those who noted Tony Blair’s boast in Bournemouth to have halved the numbers of asylum seekers in six months.
“The government is not concerned whether the amount of persecution in the world is increasing or not,” Keith Best said. “All they’re concerned about is stopping people getting into the UK.”
"With the introduction of ID cards, anyone who values civil liberties should be counting their spoons"
Immigration Advisory Service
So will British police officers mount ID card spot raids of suspected illegal immigrants? Not according to Martin Linton.
“There wouldn’t be ID checks by police,” he said, “but it’s not impossible to envisage a time in the future when there might be pressure for a card like that.”
Jan Berry put it differently, “One can have good reasons for stopping people to check what they are doing, and why and when. We have to do what we can to try and prevent crime rather than wait for it to be committed.”
The other side of the coin in the law and order debate concerns the individual’s right to privacy.
ID cards based on “biometric” data such as DNA or iris-recognition software may or may not be more difficult to forge but they do centralise greater power in the hands of the state.
For supporters of ID cards this is not a problem because existing safeguards are sufficient to protect civil rights. Keith Best though, is worried that judicial oversight of such processes is being incrementally removed.
“The danger of collating all this information about individuals onto one database which could then be hacked into or misapplied is very grave indeed,” he said.
“With the introduction of ID cards, anyone who values civil liberties should be counting their spoons. We are worried they could be a step towards a police state.”