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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 May, 2004, 08:36 GMT 09:36 UK
Opponents take on ID card plans
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology reporter

The government plans for ID cards may be presented as a fait accompli but there is still plenty of opposition brewing.

Mock-up of ID card
The idea of ID cards has hit a nerve with the public
At a packed lecture theatre at the London School of Economics on Wednesday, some of its most vehement critics assembled for a debate on the proposed government legislation.

The government itself declined to join the debate. Many of the speakers concluded the reason lay in the "flimsy" case the Home Office had put for compulsory biometric ID cards.

"The argument keeps changing about why we need ID cards, from the threat of terrorism to immigration to crime. The evidence given by the government is very flimsy," argued David Cameron, the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the Home Affairs Committee.

Members of the committee are currently hearing evidence from the government as to why ID cards are a good idea for UK citizens.

"They remain unclear about what the benefits would be," Mr Cameron said.

Simon Thomas, MP for Plaid Cymru went further, claiming the government has deliberately shied away from the debate on ID cards and has "hyped up the issues to create the mood music to make the public more receptive to the idea of ID cards".

Populist decision

Few of the speakers disagreed that the idea of ID cards had hit a nerve with a public worried about the threat of terrorism and the problems of illegal immigration.

The passport computerisation which the Home Office messed up is not a good harbinger for a cutting edge technology. It would have to be very, very simple
David Davis MP, Shadow Home Secretary
But, speakers argued, there was no evidence ID cards could lessen either problem and it was a dangerous political move to pursue a purely populist agenda.

"A piece of plastic will not stop a suicide bomber and illegal workers have documentation. It would be better spending money on the police rather than on a piece of plastic," said Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats Home Affairs spokesman.

The Law Society president Peter Williamson accused the government of being unable to produce one scrap of evidence as to how ID cards would help the fight against terrorism and crime.

He was also concerned about some of the details in the draft legislation on ID cards.

The government wants citizens to keep them informed of any change of address or circumstance so that the database, known as the national identity register, can be kept updated. There are fines of up to 1,000 for people who fail to do so.

This was unacceptably draconian, said Mr Williamson.

The card in itself was not as worrying as the database of information that would accompany it, many of the speakers pointed out.

Technology costs

Concerns were expressed about so-called function creep. Jonathan Bamford, the Assistant Information Commissioner, reminded the audience that from the time the last UK ID card was issued during World War II to the time of its abolition in 1952, the functions of the card went up from three to 39.

We are inadvertently going down the path where the state has a file on everyone and I don't want to be on a list
Lord Phillips of Sudbury, Liberal Democrat
There was general concern that the modern identity card would be used as part of the government's determination to join up its departments and give all of them access to a wide range of information, including medical records.

The government's poor record on technology projects led several speakers to conclude that it had taken on more than it could handle with such a massive database of information.

"The passport computerisation which the Home Office messed up is not a good harbinger for a cutting edge technology. It would have to be very, very simple," said David Davis MP, the Shadow Home Secretary.

Perhaps the most compelling and most repeated argument against ID cards was the one that claimed introducing such a card would subtly alter the relationship between citizens and the state.

"Privacy is a societal not an individual right. It is the police that should produce warrant cards not citizens that should be forced to carry ID cards," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group, Liberty.

"It goes to our sense of who we are as citizens," said Lib Dem peer Lord Phillips of Sudbury.

"We are inadvertently going down the path where the state has a file on everyone and I don't want to be on a list," he said.

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