Reasons to be fearful

1 Jul 05
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY | So you don’t know how much the government’s plans for a national identity card will cost in the end.

So you don’t know how much the government’s plans for a national identity card will cost in the end.

Don’t worry, Charles Clarke doesn’t either.

The ID card debate heated up this week with claims and counter-claims about the scheme’s true cost. A study  by the London School of Economics said it might be more than £19bn. Although it could also be only £10bn, which leaves one questioning just how accurate these figures can be.

The government maintains it will be far less, a mere snip at £5.8bn. The truth is that no-one knows. What we do know is the phrases ‘budget’ and ‘on time’ are not routinely associated with government IT projects.

Of course, it would be easier to pin down the cost if we knew exactly how the system would work. Will it be based on fingerprints or irises? Might it be a whole face scan? Someone must know… but their identity is a closely guarded secret.

Figures suggest that if costs keep rising, individuals might have to pay up to £300 for their ID card. This seems unlikely, not least because opinion polls already show public support tailing off rapidly the moment people understand they might have to pay close to £100 for one.

Unsurprisingly, given the welter of confusing details, the history of cockups and the general impression of a government making it up as it goes along, opponents of ID cards have chosen to focus on the system’s cost and complexity.

This has particular advantages for the Conservatives, who are worried that their opposition to the scheme might be used to paint them as soft on crime. By arguing that the scheme will be preposterously expensive and hopelessly ineffective, they can resist it on the grounds of pragmatism.

However, opponents of ID cards are making a tactical error if they go too far down this road. They should make hay with the cost argument, which will resonate with voters. But the government will eventually get the system right. The costs to individuals can be absorbed by the government while the overall expense can be disguised by aggregating it with other projects, such as the biometric passport. Furthermore, once the cards are introduced the cost argument is no longer relevant.

In the end, the most important argument is that ID cards are a bad idea and will not do any of the things claimed for them. We know that this is the case because the government keeps changing the reasons why it suggests we need them.

They were first raised by David Blunkett. Actually, strictly speaking, they were first suggested by Michael Howard as a way to fight welfare cheats and illegal immigrants.

Then came the September 11 attacks, and suddenly the Home Office had a new reason for wanting them. Now ID cards were the cornerstone of the war on terror. Never mind that there was no history of bombers using fake IDs, who wouldn’t agree to one if it meant they would not be blown to smithereens on the Tube?

However, the inconsistencies in this arguments were soon spotted. After all, a chap walking into a station with explosives strapped to his chest is unlikely to worry about falling foul of the law on carrying an ID card.

So the government came up with identity fraud, a better idea since this is a growing concern and if there is one thing an ID card should help tackle, it is ID fraud. The problem here is that this is an argument for a voluntary ID card, which shops can demand be produced with credit card purchases. It is not an argument for giving police the power to stop you and demand you produce the card.

Now ministers are saying the best argument for ID cards is a combination of all these reasons.

The truth is that the ID card is one of those ideas that are popular with the Home Office and get offered up every time there is a new home secretary, until one of them bites. This is a classic case of arguments being devised to fit a policy rather than the other way round.

But ID cards are a bad idea. Not because they will be too expensive, not because they will not deliver the promised improvements and not even because of the faint possibility that a government might one day sell all the information on its database to the direct marketers at Tesco.

They are a bad idea because the supporting database is an intrusion into citizens’ privacy, which will doubtless creep ever further into our lives and which allows the state easy access to a vast amount of information about us. Because citizens in a free country in peacetime should not be required to carry a permit to leave their own home. And because the cards will bring law-abiding citizens into conflict with the police at a time when support for and confidence in the police is already on the wane.

These are the real costs of ID cards and the ones that opponents of the scheme should be focusing on.

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