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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
A question of identity
The introduction of compulsory identity cards in Britain has moved a step closer, with Home Secretary David Blunkett asking for feedback on plans to bring in "entitlement cards". But it would be a controversial move.

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

Now the attacks on the United States and the war on terrorism has led the UK Government to announce it will consider their reintroduction. It comes just weeks after the so-called "invasion" of asylum seekers from continental Europe also led to a debate about the UK's lack of ID cards.

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

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 UK, perhaps, in comparison to other countries, is a relatively unpoliced society," the Home Office told a Commons select committee

Whether British people would be willing to sanction changing this amid fears of terrorism or illegal immigrants is one that civil liberties groups say is debateable.

And Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, has asked if the World Trade Center attacks would have been prevented by the UK having ID cards.

Resentment

When the cards were abandoned after the war, it was actually because they were being counter productive to good policing.

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 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

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.

The introduction of ID cards might at best only offer temporary assistance to 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".

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.

See also:

24 Sep 01 | UK Politics
ID cards opposition grows
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