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Tuesday, January 17, 2006 

ID Cards: This government just doesn't know when to quit.

Once again, the plan for identity cards and for a furthering of the database behind it has been mauled by its opponents. Once again, the government is back up on its feet swinging blindly before it gets knocked back to the canvas again.

The proposals for identity cards had been originally intended to be rushed through as quickly as possible. Thanks to a strong and growing opposition, they have been repeatedly delayed so far. The latest setback to the government's plans has been in the House of Lords, where peers voted to demand that ministers reveal the full estimate of the cost of the entire scheme. They also insisted that cards should not become compulsory through the backdoor, and that only details of external physical characteristics should be held on the database, not internal characteristics, i.e. DNA structures.

The whole scheme itself is full of holes. Ministers have tried to defend it on numerous grounds since it was first muted by dear old Dave Blunkett, and has since been supported by Blair as part of his respect agenda. First they said it was vital in the war against terror, until it was pointed out that the Spanish bombers had ID cards and that it didn't stop the Madrid attacks. Clarke was also forced to admit they would not have stopped the London attacks. To add insult to injury, Stella Rimington, former head of MI5 said they would not make the country safer and that the possibility of forgery could make the completely useless. Ministers then resulted to in effect blaming the EU, saying that biometric passports were to be made compulsory so that the public may as well get 2 for the price of 1. This then fell apart when it was revealed that it was up to individual states to make their own decisions on the matter. Another fallback to defend the scheme was that it would help stop "bogus" asylum seekers. One problem: asylum seekers in the country already have ID cards, issued by the government in previous reforms of the system. Introducing them for the general population would actually likely confuse the issue. And then finally, there are the problems of cost. The government maintains that cards will only cost £93, and that those on lower income will pay lower. Then the London School of Economics issued their report claiming the scheme could cost up to £19bn (that's £7bn more than the annual cost of Incapacity Benefit, fact fans) and that to cover the cost the cards could well cost up to £300. The government rejects these figures, but refuses to release their full estimates and costing because if the IT firms knew how big the budget was, none would bid any less. Of course, it may also be because the government knows who it's handing the scheme to and doesn't want any upstarts to underbid them.

This is without even commenting on the civil liberties implications, the huge database behind the cards which will likely be maintained privately with the possibility of leaks of information, and the horrible thought of returning to the war years with police demanding to see "your papers". Perhaps the best criticism though came from Lord Philips, who quoted a Labour politician who attacked the then Tory plans for ID cards by saying the money should be used on more police instead. That Labour politician? Tony Blair.

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