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Home Office defends ID card plans (again)

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The UK government today renewed its attack against critics of its ID card proposals. Home Office minister Des Browne MP said opponents are campaigning on a false prospectus based on "myths and misinformation" about its scheme to require every UK resident to have a biometric ID card within eight years or so.

At one time or another, the Home Office has cited clamping down on benefit fraud, controlling illegal immigration and helping to prevent terrorism as reasons why Britain needs ID cards.

Critics have focused on areas such as the Home Office's failure to clearly define a purpose for ID cards, the amount of information that would be held on any card and who might be able to access this information. Cost and civil liberties implications of a compulsory ID card also loom large.

According to Browne, accusations of authoritarianism or anti-democratic impulses are unfair. At a Home Office press briefing in London, he said people would not be required to carry an ID card. But fines of up to £2,500 could be applied to those who fail to register for a card or notify authorities about a change of address, under plans to make cards compulsory by around 2012.

"We're bringing together information about someone that is known to government or in the public domain, allied to biometric info. It won't contain medical or tax records, the bill precludes that. This is not a Big Brother database," Browne, in a combative performance, told a group of IT hacks.

But what of the cost? International travel regulations are moving towards the inclusions of biometric information on passports, Browne notes. The Home Office estimates it will cost £415m per annum to issue biometric passports by 2008/9. Issuing ID cards will cost an additional £85m each year and verification technology another £50m.

That's the running costs. Capital costs will peg out at around £186m plus between £250 to £750 per biometric reader. That is according to Home Office estimates: UK government projects have a poor history of coming in on time and to budget. Browne says the government will carry out extensive trials and "learn from experience".

He also says that heads of both the Metropolitan Police and the British Medical Association have told him ID cards are the "single best thing" the government can do to help them fight ID theft and unauthorised access to free healthcare.

The government has recently backtracked a little in its arguments that ID cards are vital in the fight against terrorism. Browne today said that ID cards are "no panacea - and we never said they were" in the fight against terrorism.

The bombings in Madrid last year are sometimes cited by critics as evidence that ID cards are of little assistance in preventing terrorist outrages. Browne counters that ID cards help police interdict terrorist activity by preventing terrorists from maintaining multiple false IDs. ®

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