As the deputy under-secretary at the Home Office surreptitiously brushes the dog hairs from the welcome mat, we have one final and unexpected chance to call for sanity over national ID cards. The new incumbent, Charles Clarke, is known to have harboured many reservations in the past. While he is undoubtedly under orders not to rock the boat in the run-up to the election, that goes both ways. He has a great deal of political leverage in exchange for sparing any further blushes.
The arguments against ID cards are threefold: they are expensive, intrusive and ineffective.
Expensive: The cost per card, which we will have to individually bear, is being set at around £80. That's before the traditional doubling or quadrupling of costs that large projects enjoy. An enormous secure infrastructure will have to be created and maintained to issue and track the cards, and it will only grow.
Intrusive: They will be a constant burden. A £1,000 fine is proposed if you forget to tell the agency that you've moved -- doubtless there'll be expensive and legalistic bureaucracy when the things are lost, stolen or stop working. The database that holds all our details will be an irresistible honey pot for hackers and other criminals, not to mention any state or quasi-state organisation that feels it has a right to dip into our lives. The biometric systems at the heart of the idea do not work at an acceptable level of accuracy. There's no evidence that they ever will. Yet when officials are confronted with a person, an ID card and a system that refuses to match the two, there can be little doubt who'll be in trouble 'just until we sort things out, sir. Or is it madam?' And heaven help you if you need to prove yourself to the doctor, bank or police for the duration.
Ineffective: What will these things do for us? Even the government has accepted that they won't do much against terrorism, despite this being a major excuse for their introduction. Lawful citizens already have an array of ID options, while criminals large and small will go about their business much as before. The chances of making the issuing system perfect against fraud and corruption are the same as for any bureaucracy that relies on large numbers of underpaid workers. Those who can afford to buy themselves a spare identity will.
Blunkett, we must remember, has blamed his demise on the Home Office 'system' that sent an email nobody knew existed. If things are that unmanageable at the heart of power, what will it be like writ large? The government is incapable of understanding the realities of high technology compared to the PowerPoint fantasies of its trusted advisors and suppliers. We can only hope that with its chief demagogue gone it can recover some of its common sense and start to see freedom as something to be enjoyed, not centrally managed.