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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
And I've got the card to prove it
The re-introduction of national identity cards might help dissuade asylum seekers choosing the UK as their destination of choice, says the French ambassador. Could Britons soon be forced to carry proof of their identity?

The last time people in the UK were obliged to carry identity cards it was to guard against Nazi parachutists.

Half a century on and it is the so-called "invasion" of asylum seekers from continental Europe that has re-ignited the debate about the nation's lack of ID cards.

Refugees attempting to reach the UK
Will identity cards dissuade them?
France's ambassador to London has said our resistance to carrying proof of identity is "one of many reasons" that asylum seekers cross any number of "safe" European countries to reach the UK.

Language, family ties and the perception that we treat asylum seekers with greater "humanity" were more important factors in attracting refugees to the UK, said Daniel Bernard

However, he has suggested asylum seekers "think that once they set foot in Britain they are protected and will not be asked for their identification papers".

Border controls

In other European nations, citizens and refugees alike must carry ID cards and present them to police, employers or teachers on demand and in order to gain access to government services and benefits.

The UK opted out of the Schengen agreement (which allows unrestricted movement between other EU countries), arguing that the British public's freedom from domestic ID checks made the robust policing of our borders more pressing.

Soldiers returning from Dunkirk
War forced ID cards on the British
"The United Kingdom, perhaps, in comparison to other countries, is a relatively unpoliced society," the Home Office told a Commons select committee

Whether the British people are willing to sanction changing this amid fears over illegal immigrants or asylum seekers disappearing if their applications are rejected is debateable, says Roger Bingham of the civil rights group Liberty.

"We had national identity cards during the war and there was so much abuse of the system by police that they were scrapped due to the public outcry. Do we want to go down that road again?"

Resentment

Indeed, when he ruled against the continued issuing of the cards in 1952, Lord Chief Justice Goddard said that with the nation no longer facing a military threat, ID checks were actually hindering the work of the police.

"In this country, we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling that exists between the police and the public, and such action tends to make the public resentful of the acts of the police and inclines them to obstruct them rather than assist them."

Football supporter show their passports
Would we want ID police checks?
While much else might have changed since the 1950s, MPs who recently examined the issue predicted there would still be "widespread repugnance at the prospect of the police ... being empowered to stop someone in the street and demand the production of an identity card".

As a measure to combat illegal migration, they further concluded "there is a grave risk that this could foster racial harassment and cause setbacks in good race relations".

However, with virtually everybody in the UK already asked to present driving licences, credit cards, work IDs and numerous certificates on an almost daily basis, the committee reasoned that a unified "entitlement" card might prove a more acceptable measure in catching out law breakers.

Blind eye

How far such a card would hinder the daily lives of illegal immigrants is by no means certain, with even the Home Office admitting that: "You can live in the United Kingdom pretty easily, even if you are here illegally, particularly if you have an employer ... who does not ask too many questions."

Enforcing compulsory ID checks by public service workers might also prove thorny. When Californian voters approved a 1994 law denying those without documents state health care, education and benefits, many teachers, doctors and other workers were horrified by their new duty to report "illegals".

A Brazilian model shows off her ID as part of a protest
The innocent have nothing to hide?
Proposition 187 has since been scrapped, but a section relating to the penalties for "manufacturing" fake documentation remains on the books.

In the cat-and-mouse game with refugee smugglers, the introduction of ID cards might at best only offer temporary respite for the UK authorities.

An investigation by the Sunday Mirror found an array of fake European passports and IDs for sale. Journalists were offered a British driving licence for 150 not backed by "computer records".

They were later told of an intricate process of swapping forged EU documents which would eventually see "illegals" entered in to the UK driving licence database.

Faking it

Faking photo IDs is a virtual cottage industry in the United States, with under-21s keen to beat the nation's strict alcohol laws.

Any UK ID would need to be more resilient to the cheats. Previous Home Office plans have proposed a "smart" card able to store data, something even less likely to endear compulsory IDs to their critics.

Eddie Murphy
"I am Eddie Murphy"
However, convict Kevin Pullum's recent escape from the Los Angeles County Jail revealed just how bad humans are at matching passport-sized photographs to the person carrying the actual card.

The attempted murderer waltzed through an employee exit with a cell-made ID card showing a photo of movie star Eddie Murphy which he had clipped from a newspaper.

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Daniel Bernard, French Ambassador to London
suggests that ID Cards could make Britain a less attractive destination for asylum seekers
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