Melanie Phillips

1 July 2002

ID cards are not the British way

Published in: Daily Mail

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At first blush, it seems such a good and even obvious idea. Identity cards would surely be the answer to unlawful fiddles of all kinds. What could be simpler to control criminals, benefit cheats or illegal immigrants than a 'smart card' that separates out those who are entitled to the rewards of lawful citizenship from those who are not? Why should the law-abiding have any problem with that?

This week, the Home Secretary David Blunkett will issue a consultation paper on the government's proposal to introduce 'entitlement' cards - identity cards in all but name-for the entire population, to regulate individuals' access to a range of public services. It would apparently be compulsory to possess such a card but not to carry it at all times, although failure to produce it when required would be punishable by fines or imprisonment.

The proposal is likely to ignite furious protest from a wide range of MPs, pressure groups and other individuals anxious about its implications for civil liberty. The government disingenuously pretends merely to be opening a 'national debate'. What this means is that it knows it may have to beat a hasty retreat if the reaction is overwhelmingly hostile.

The arguments in favour appear seductive. Most of us regularly have to fish in our wallets or purses for more and more little bits of plastic which we are required to produce in our everyday lives. Why, then, should we object to having to fish out another?

After all, identity cards are commonplace in Europe where everyone accepts they have to produce them on demand. The French government tells us repeatedly that the reason why Britain is disproportionately targeted by migrants is because the absence of identity cards means asylum-seekers can easily disappear without trace into the system.

It is certainly true that we are facing unprecedented pressures, and not just from the unresolved problem of mass migration. Since September 11, it has been clear that Britain faces a potential threat from terrorism which requires a far more hard-nosed approach to the balance between liberty and security than it has so far acknowledged.

But hold it right there. Britain is not the same as Europe. We have a very different approach to liberty. Here, everything is permitted unless it is forbidden. People can go about their business without being expected to give an account of themselves.

By contrast, in Europe freedom is something that has to be codified and granted from above. So Europeans have always been used to producing 'papers' to prove themselves, a practice that we have always found unacceptable.

The case now for identity cards would have to be overwhelming for us to go down this route. But when the proposal is looked at carefully, it doesn't stand up.

For starters, is it to be compulsory to carry these cards or not? According to some leaks, asylum-seekers would have to carry them at all times while the rest of us would not. This opens up a dismaying vista of confusion and potential harassment. For how are the police to know whether someone who looks foreign is an asylum-seeker, and therefore required to carry this entitlement card, or a British citizen who is entitled to keep it at home?

Even if Blunkett is proposing that no-one would have to carry it at all times, thousands of law-abiding folk would still be turned into criminals if they failed to produce it when required. Indeed, the distinction between a voluntary and coercive scheme is illusory, since we would undoubtedly find that if we did not keep the card in our pockets we would be subject to massive inconvenience.

All this goes absolutely against the British grain. There is all the difference in the world between freely choosing an entitlement card, and being compelled under threat of punishment by the state to produce one.

Moreover, this would be a 'smart card' containing an array of personal information. Making such details available to any official agency would mean kissing goodbye to individual privacy and inviting further state control over our lives.

In any event, this is a bewhiskered old wheeze that has done the rounds of Whitehall before. Peter Lilley, who rejected identity cards when he was a Tory minister, has shown that the case simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

For example, the police point out that identification of criminals isn't the problem - it's rather catching and convicting them. Similarly, identifying illegal immigrants wouldn't answer the rather more pressing question of what is then to be done with them.

The problems of dealing with crime, terrorism, illegal immigration or benefit fraud are rooted not in a shortfall in state information but in rotten policies and a general failure of official will.

Asylum-seekers are already given an identity document without which they cannot legally obtain benefits or jobs. The problem lies not in identifying such people but in the fact that they are not detained, that those who shouldn't be here are not sent back and that they are presumed to have an automatic entitlement to welfare.

Benefit fraud is rarely due to false identity. It is escalating instead because of Gordon Brown's obsession with extending means-testing and the dependency culture, which are positive incitements to cheat.

It is also doubtful that identity cards would help combat terrorism. Extremists linked to Al Q'aeda or other supporters of middle eastern terror openly recruit to their murderous cause or distribute leaflets inciting people to violence. Yet they are hardly ever prosecuted as a result of the excessive timidity of the law officers and a government policy of appeasement.

Crime reduction is being paralysed by a criminal justice system wildly signalling that authority is in full retreat. The proposed entitlement card would cost an estimated

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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