Not as guilty as he looks? The Met chief, Labour and ID cards

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Sir Ian's problems with ID go beyond the identification of asylum seekers, however. "What you and I would recognise as forgery just doesn't exist any more," he told Sir David Frost. "There are no more printing presses in basements. The documents that are being produced are exactly identical to the real documents, they're just unauthorised." Again he puts forward ID cards as the magic bullet, but again they would fail to deal with the specific problems faced by the Met.

Three of those cleared of conspiracy charges in the Bourgass case had false ID, and one claimed to have purchased his false French passport nearby, in the Blackstock Road, for £190. Muhammed Meguerba, now detained in Algeria, was also found to have a false French passport when he was briefly arrested in the UK in September 2002. Unsurprisingly, false ID is neither expensive nor difficult to come by in areas where there is a substantial migrant and asylum seeker community. Tightening up on asylum clearly exacerbates the problem, because at least some of those whose application fails will make it their business to acquire an alternative identity.

As Sir Ian says, the false documents these days are "exactly identical to the real documents", but the obvious snag with the ID card fix here is that a British ID scheme doesn't fix a non-British ID document, and doesn't make it any less convincing. If it becomes virtually impossible to forge a British ID document, then market forces will merely drive more business to false non-British ID, and the long term fix (universal biometric ID across Europe, and everybody's biometrics available to the security services) is a long way off, if it's even possible.

We can understand the fiendish nature of the ID problems Sir Ian faces, and will face for the foreseeable future, by looking at the specific issues associated with the threat of terror from Algerian groups. The current Algerian regime is effectively at war with Algeria's radical Islamists, who won an election there a few years ago but were cheated of the result. Algerian refugees arriving in the UK will therefore often have very real reasons for fearing for their lives if sent back. But at the same time some of them may also feel they have very real reasons for mounting attacks on the Algerian regime, and this means that the current Algerian regime has very real reasons for categorising them as terrorists.

Other people's civil wars don't half complicate matters for the security services, but it gets worse where the likes of Bourgass and Meguerba come in. In among the Algerian radicals will be people who sympathise with the aims of al-Qaida, and even some who've had some contact with al-Qaida. Distinguishing what is probably a small number of real contacts from a much larger number of 'friend of a friend' contacts will however be very difficult for the security services. At the same time, it's clearly in the interests of the Algerian security services to 'unearth' links between its own opponents and al-Qaida, so although some of the information coming out of Algeria perhaps ought to be acted on, that information can't be entirely trusted.

This situation, and similar ones elsewhere in the world, presents the police with problems without obvious solutions. Somewhere in among legal and law abiding migrant and refugee communities lie threats of indeterminate size, along with quantities of minor ID offenders. But the security services have very little knowledge of these communities, and have no real way to distinguish between international terrorist, regime opponent, minor ID fraud and law-abiding citizen or immigrant. The result is large numbers of arrests but a very small number of actual terrorism convictions. Earlier this year the Home Office claimed 17 convictions out of a total of 701 arrests, but even the 17 is suspect (as shown by an Institute of Race Relations report).

The people who're arrested without justification are obviously the primary victims here, but you could also see the police as being caught in the middle. Pressure for results in the War on Terror forces the arrests, and the police are then faced with the difficulty of proving guilt on the basis of intelligence information that turns out to be slim, or just plain wrong. The more arrests of innocent people there are, however, the more criticism the police face, the more wary the target communities get, and the bigger the police's problem gets. But if Sir Ian doesn't attempt to crack down on terror he risks being responsible for that British 911 the spooks keep telling him about, while if he cracks down too hard, he's helping build a police state.

In that sense it's understandable that he should start to wish for magic bullets, like an ID system that incontrovertibly tells him who everybody in the UK is, and new laws that make the people the spooks say are guilty look guilty when they actually get to court.

We should not however confuse understanding with sympathy or agreement. The magic ID system he (and indeed, the Government) wishes for doesn't exist, nor can it; ID systems can provide a measure of administrative convenience for the police, but Sir Ian shouldn't be confusing his own administrative convenience with fighting terror, and should be thinking in sufficient depth about his problems to understand where they actually lie.

Similarly, Sir Ian (and again, the Government) should be considering the possibility that, rather than letting people off because the law is inadequate, the courts are clearing people because they're not actually guilty, and/or because the intelligence underlying the prosecutions is of a very low standard. Dealing with this would be a much greater challenge for Sir Ian, because it would mean standing up and saying that much of the stuff his people are being fed is tenuous nonsense, and that the intelligence services should get a grip, stop scaring people, and stop making his job harder. It'd probably be better to say this to Charles Clarke than to Sir David Frost - we accept it wouldn't be easy, but it's a truth that somebody's going to have to point out to them, sooner or later. ®

* About those cars. Yes, the timing of the revelation makes them sound like Lady Bracknell's notion of carelessness, but there's an explanation of sorts. The Met is supposed to protect Tony Blair (even from that much-deserved little slap, the spoilsports), so there's a logic to putting him in Met cars with Met drivers. But obviously not cars with big signs on them saying "POLICE", and obviously in order for them not to stand out from the other cars in the New Labour election team, they ought to have some Labour campaign stickers too. So you can grasp the thinking behind it, although like us, some of you might recall the days when the presence of a very expensive and souped-up motor would stick out like a capitalist infiltrator in a People's Party convoy.

Related stories:

Clarke calls for ID cards after imagining huge poison terror ring
Labour promises 'voluntary' compulsory ID card
General election debate misses purpose of ID cards

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