ID cards were a bad idea from the start
The Coalition’s first Bill will be debated in the House of Commons tomorrow and, fittingly, it involves the repeal of a measure that is emblematic of the last Labour government’s time in office: ID cards.
I have lost count of the articles I have written about them since they were first proposed by David Blunkett, the former home secretary, after the September 11 attacks in America in 2001. At the time, Labour claimed support from about 80 per cent of the population for a mandatory scheme that would involve establishing a National Identity Register to carry the personal details of every adult in the land.
For many, as the dust from the collapsed World Trade Centre towers cleared to reveal a changed security landscape, this seemed a small price to pay for improved safety in the face of the terrorist threat. A familiar phrase came to be used to justify the proposal: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.
But of course this was never a security measure at all. The Home Office had been trying to establish a register of the population ever since the last ID card was abolished after the Second World War. When he was home secretary in the previous Conservative government in 1994, Michael Howard flirted with the idea but was beaten back.
As Peter Lilley, one of the foremost Cabinet critics of the idea put it: “There is no policy that has been hawked, unsold, around Whitehall for longer than identity cards. It was always brought to us as a solution looking for problems.”
Before al Qaeda came on the scene, these problems for which ID cards were the answer included benefit fraud and under age smoking, drinking, and betting on the National Lottery. There was hardly a peep about international terrorism or illegal immigration because these were not the problems then that they are today.
The September 11 attacks were another opportunity for proponents of ID cards to push their cause. The only problem was that none of the arguments advanced in their favour held any more water than before. To begin with, fake ids there were civil liberties objections, which Labour deemed to have overcome, though on what basis was never fully explained. But it was the practical tests to which ID cards were subjected that proved their undoing. More evidence emerged to show they would do little to reduce crime, nothing to stop suicide bombers, would be useless against illegal immigrants and of doubtful value against fraud.
Labour also muddied the waters about the costs. The figure that was given for their introduction about 500 million a year when they were up and running applied only to the Home Office budget. Since it was envisaged that all public bodies would eventually need ID card readers, the potential cost was far higher, and could have surpassed 10 billion in the long run. Official figures suggesting that they would actually prove financially beneficial, because the scheme would be funded through charges, were fanciful, both financially and politically.
Labour was also happy to frame this debate in terms of carrying the card, which would not be mandatory, when in fact the real issue was the National Identity Register and the information it would contain. As popular backing for ID cards fell away, Labour switched tack entirely and began to argue that whether we liked it or not, the money would have to be spent on introducing state of the art biometric passports, without which we could not get into America.
This was rubbish, too; but it meant the cost of setting up the new system could be hidden behind this apparently unavoidable spending on passports. As a result, the cost of a passport has shot up over the years. In 1995, just before Labour took office, buy fake ids a 10 year adult passport cost 18. That was the year we said farewell to the distinctive, stiff backed, 32 page “Old Blue”, in which details height, eye colour and other distinguishing markings were written out in the best copper plate of officialdom; it was replaced by the flexible, burgundy coloured Euro document, with which we are now all miserably familiar. Today, a basic 10 year passport costs 77.50. A jumbo will cost more, and if you want one in a hurry, you will pay 138.50. You even have to fork out 49 for a baby’s passport or 96 if you’re in a rush when, until recently, you could amend your own to include the offspring for a fiver. So, even though the last rites will be read tomorrow over the ID card, we are still paying the price of this folly when we go to get our new passport, to which the development of the biometrics for the identity system was linked.
Latterly, Mr Blunkett came to the conclusion that the ID card was probably not a good idea after all, and that the passport could act perfectly well as an identity document, as, indeed, it has done since they were first invented. We would all have been saved a lot of time, fake ids money and effort if he had thought of that in the first place.