Britain considers mandatory ID cards
By ALAN FREEMAN
Tuesday, September 25, 2001
LONDON -- The land where the concept of civil liberties was born is considering compulsory identity cards as part of its war against terrorism, prompting protests from civil libertarians and opposition MPs.
David Blunkett, Britain's Home Secretary, said the issue of compulsory ID cards has been given "a fairly high priority" in government discussions on the most effective response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, although he promised there would not be any "snap announcement."
He said the government would have to consider how to balance civil liberties and the need to protect a democratic society from destructive forces.
"Those things are very difficult issues but they are ones we are going to have to address if we are going to protect the most basic freedom of all, which is to live in peace without fear."
Britain, which abolished wartime ID cards in the early 1950s, has long resisted the continental European approach of requiring everyone to carry a form of identification. There is not even a commonly accepted form of voluntary ID in Britain, similar to a driver's licence in North America.
But faced with an influx of undocumented asylum seekers and the attacks in New York and Washington, the public is increasingly in favour of compulsory ID; one opinion poll published on the weekend found 85-per-cent support.
Most believe the cards would help police fight crime, identify illegal immigrants and prevent terrorism, as well as help reduce fraud. Mr. Blunkett has talked of making it a kind of citizen's access card, which would be used for services such as health care as well.
The government's plans are still vague but consideration is being given to including electronically coded fingerprints or iris-recognition data on the cards.
The Conservative opposition backs the idea but the Liberal Democrats are worried about the threat to personal freedoms, saying terrorists would simply obtain fake ID cards.
Meanwhile, Liberty, a British civil-liberties group, fears introduction of the cards would lead to systematic random checks in Britain that would discriminate against foreigners, the homeless and blacks.
"Community relations and race relations would take a significant downturn," said John Wadham, Liberty's director.
Six years ago, a plan by the Conservative government to introduce a voluntary ID card was dropped in the wake of opposition from civil liberties groups.
The ID cards are just one of a series of measures now being considered that provide the right to monitor e-mail, compel banks to release confidential details of financial transactions by suspected terrorist groups and establish a common European arrest warrant.
In Germany, every resident over the age of 16 is required to carry a personal ausweis about twice the size of a credit card.
The plasticized card includes a photo, the bearer's full name, birthplace and date, nationality, height, eye colour, current address and signature.
It can also be used in place of a passport for travel within the European Union.
In France, the state-provided ID card may not be legally required but the police can ask anyone to furnish identification, which can be in the form of the state ID card, a passport or driver's licence, said a spokesman for the French embassy in London. "Everybody has an ID card. We take it when we go shopping. We need it to pay by cheque and we need it when we go to the bank."
France introduced ID cards for foreigners in 1888 and extended it to all citizens in 1940.
France's ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, has said the lack of ID cards is a major reason asylum seekers are doing everything they can to leave France and get to Britain, where they can disappear easily.
In Britain, ID cards are backed by the Police Federation, which represents 125,000 rank-and-file police officers in England and Wales. It says the card should initially be voluntary "but we would hope that as the public become more aware of the benefits of the card, the civil liberties objections could be overcome."