Identity crisis on the cards for Blunkett

I am not sure whether David Blunkett is currently doing irony. It would certainly be a great pity if he was unable to appreciate that one of the key proofs the tabloids had of his relationship with Mrs Quinn was the picture of her on CCTV entering his apartment block. Now he claims that his private life should remain private. I agree - and that is why I regard the introduction of identity cards as dangerous. States like to control and governments enjoy power. ID cards would enable the state to increase still further its surveillance of the population and give the police powers that would aggravate its relationship with the public. What is more the Government has the brass-faced cheek to tell us that we are each to be charged £35 for this privilege.

As Mr Blunkett has belatedly discovered, we all have secrets, some more than others, and it is not legitimate for the state to force us to carry cards that encode personal information to prove that we exist. The history of the abuse of information is vivid enough. When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands they invited all the population to turn up and to register themselves. It was, they assured the Dutch, entirely voluntary, but what happened? Those who had nothing to fear willingly registered and it was then simple for the occupiers to round up the Jews and other vulnerable groups who had not dared to register. Similarly it was easy in Rwanda for the Hutus to identify Tutsis - it was marked on their ID cards.

If this seems far-fetched in Britain, ponder the possible implications of encoding date and place of birth or marital status, or even residence - with a requirement to report every change of address. I was one of the many who refused to complete the 1971 Census form, which asked for the place of birth of grandparents, just as the then government was introducing laws on immigration based on "patriality" and the origins of one's grandparents.

There may be those amongst us who in 1997 believed sincerely that a new government would herald a fresh approach to civil liberties and to freedom of information. They have been disappointed. One kind of authoritarianism has simply been replaced by another. One reason why the Conservative party is finding it difficult to make electoral headway is that new Labour has stolen its clothes. Even so, if anyone has a residual belief that the present government's use of ID cards would be benign, they need to realise that, once introduced, ID cards are there for any future government to abuse.

In this context, I do not believe for a moment that the police will not have powers to demand the production of one's card. Just note that the Bill includes penalties for those who fail to register. How can that be ascertained without police powers of enforcement? Once again the police will be lumbered with an unnecessary task that will undermine their ability to build a constructive partnership with the public. When John Major proposed ID cards in 1995, the then spokesman for Chief Police Officers commented that "a compulsory card would potentially alienate many members of the public from the police."

There is no evidence, either in Britain or elsewhere, that ID cards assist in detecting crime or even identity fraud. Their proposed introduction is yet another example of the failure to build secure confident communities and of the use of the magic word "terrorism" to justify another futile measure. Britain has more police than ever before, more people in prison than at any other time in its history, and its population is under CCTV surveillance in street after street, and yet crime continues to rise. overnments refuse to face the more complex task of tackling the causes of crime and just carry on inventing more methods of control. There is a serious disease rampant in the world and governments use only the prescription of repression. It fails every time and yet they just keep increasing the dose, no matter how serious are the side effects. The reintroduction of identity cards is just the latest form of the same drug.

The logistical and economic arguments against the government's proposals are powerful enough on their own, but it is the argument of principle that mainly concerns me. As it happens, Yorkshire has a direct connection with the abolition of earlier ID cards - simple cards completed by hand, it should be pointed out, and nothing like the state of the art biometric cards now proposed. In 1952, a Horsforth Liberal, Harry Wilcock, was stopped by the police whilst driving in London and ordered to produce his identity card. He refused, arguing that the cards had been a wartime emergency measure. The magistrates' court agreed with his argument in principle but, as the law was still in force, could only find him guilty and give him an absolute discharge. Wilcock appealed against his conviction and the Lord Chief Justice sat on the appeal. Lord Justice Goddard upheld the decision of the lower court but agreed with Wilcock, saying, "in this country we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling which exists between the police and the public. Random demands to see identity cards tend to make people resentful of the acts of the police and incline them to obstruct the police instead of assisting them." The following year parliament abolished identity cards without even a division.

Mr Blunkett and the government are in for a long struggle against widespread refusal to carry his cards. Australia tried to introduce a very similar card in 1987 but, as the public learned more about the implications, it turned against it and the government was forced to abandon its plans. It will take a little time for the same realisation to impinge on the British public butthe successful poll tax revolt may have nothing on what is in store for the Government.

5 December 2004