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Friday, 24 January, 2003, 11:30 GMT
Doubts over ID card scheme
ID card sample
Any scheme could take 10 years to get off the ground
The UK Government could abandon proposals for a national identity card scheme.

Speaking at a conference on the future of ID cards organised by tech industry body Intellect, Home Office Minister Lord Falconer told delegates that the scheme may never come to fruition.

Will the benefits outweigh the risks to privacy, human rights and social values?

Jonathan Bamford, Office of the Information Commissioner
"We may not proceed with the scheme and if we do it will take several years," he said.

When the proposals were floated six months ago, Home Secretary David Blunkett said he favoured the introduction of so-called entitlement cards.

But criticism about compulsory ID cards has been mounting in recent weeks as the government's consultation period draws to a close.

Privacy concerns

Assistant Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford indicated that his office was unlikely to favour the idea of an ID card.

The Information Commissioner is an independent official body, responsible for data protection.

"Do we risk changing the fabric of our society so that the highest level of identification becomes the norm for the most mundane of services?" he asked.

"Will the benefits outweigh the risks to privacy, human rights and social values?" he added.

Lord Falconer's speech - punctuated throughout with the word 'if' - did seek to reassure the doubters that any such ID system would not damage privacy.

"If we proceed we will need a clearly defined set of purposes," he told delegates.

"We would have to design the legislation so that future governments could not make changes without coming back to parliament first," he added.

Critics have worried that the billion pound database of information needed to back up such a scheme could be used by a wide variety of government and outside agencies.

Conflicting figures

A battle of words has broken out between the Home Office and leading opponents of the scheme.

Privacy International in conjunction with lobby group Stand.org.uk has recently submitted over 7,000 responses to the consultation process.

The overwhelming majority are against the idea.

Citizens seem satisfied with the ID card which is rarer than sex with an elephant

Giuseppe Mistretta, Italian Embassy
But the Home Office says it has only received 2,000 responses with around two to one in favour of such a scheme.

"What an absolute fabrication," said head of Privacy International Simon Davies.

He claims the government is fully aware of the responses it has submitted and agreed that they would incorporate them in its own statistics.

Mr Davies believes that, once the consultation closes at the end of January the government may backtrack on its plans to go ahead with legislation.

"The situation at the moment is similar in nature to the retreat made by the Michael Howard administration," said Mr Davies.

"The same pattern is emerging of a dignified retreat and increasingly conditional statements from the government," he added.

Privacy International is planning to lodge a complaint with the parliamentary ombudsman about how the government has conducted the consultation process for ID cards.

Global experiences

Many European countries have already introduced ID cards and, according to First Counsellor of the Italian Embassy Giuseppe Mistretta the idea has gone down well with citizens.

"There are few things in Italy that seem to work, including the football team at the moment but citizens seem satisfied with the ID card which is rarer than sex with an elephant," he told the conference.

Italians have had some form of ID card since 1931. They play a part in cutting down on bureaucracy which has always been a huge problem in Italy said Mr Mistretta.

Not every country has accepted ID cards so readily. Plans to introduce a card in Australia at the end of the eighties appeared to be going well with the vast majority of citizens.

"Then people found out what the actual details were and it crashed like a wave on Bondi Beach," said Assistant Information Commissioner Jonathan Bamford.

See also:

14 Jan 03 | Technology
18 Dec 02 | Business
18 Dec 02 | Technology
03 Dec 02 | Politics
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