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Security minister defends ID cards, longer detention

'Computer giga-terror' threat explained

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The Liberal Democrat party has attacked the proposed National ID card scheme, on the grounds that the government cannot effectively implement simpler plans such as passport interviews. But the new government security minister has mounted a spirited defence.

"The Government has made a total mess of introducing interviews for first-time passport applicants," said Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman.

"The project has gone over-time, over-budget and still isn't working properly."

The passport interview facilities will also be the basis of the planned ID card registration infrastructure. According to parliamentary answers obtained by the Lib Dems, £69m has been spent so far on 59 interview centres. The original plans had called for 69 offices costing £55m.

The service was supposed to have been up and running by "late 2006", but in fact interviews did not commence until the following May.

"How can we possibly believe [the government] will be able to introduce the infinitely more complicated identity cards scheme, which will be based on the same infrastructure, when it can't even deliver this basic system?" asked Clegg.

"It is time to pull the plug on the ID cards proposals," he concluded, talking to the Independent.

But Baron West of Spithead, ennobled and installed as security minister by the incoming Brown administration, defended the passport scheme in a BBC interview.

"What I particularly like in my counter-terrorist role," he said, "is the fact that we're going for two biometrics, for passports for people coming into this country and our passport holders - that will help without a doubt, in being able to pin down the terrorist movement and who terrorists are..."

The new security supremo also said he hadn't heard anything about the government going cold on ID cards, and that he was looking forward to them.

"National identity cards will play an important part, a very important part in countering terrorism, there's no doubt about that," he said.

"I mean, one can think of all sorts of reasons one might not like them, but actually, in terms of counter-terrorism, they will be extremely useful."

Lord West is on record as believing that the UK faces a 15-year war against terrorism. He was previously head of the Royal Navy, joining straight from school in 1965. His naval service is noteworthy in comparison to that of other senior admirals for two main events. Firstly, the frigate he commanded in the Falklands War was sunk, and in accordance with long tradition West was the last man off. This earned him a medal. Secondly, in 1986 the then-Captain was courtmartialled* for losing 59 pages of sensitive MoD documents, which he said had fallen from his coat pocket while he walked a friend's dog.

Oddly enough the documents in question were found by a journalist, leading to excellent press coverage of the MoD upper echelons' worries about possible cuts to their budget. Unsurprisingly, Captain West's subsequent court martial had no ill effects on his career - indeed from that point his ascent could well be described as meteoric.

Nobody could ever doubt Lord West's loyalty; but it could be that he still has a few things to catch up on. Speaking on possible renewed plans by the government for longer detention of terrorist suspects by the police, he said:

"Let's face it, 28 days is a long time. But we needed that... And the sheer complexity in terms of numbers of computers, the sort of giga-terror bits of information that need to be looked at... make us feel that maybe this needs to be longer.

"I don't like the thought that even though we've got lots of safeguards in place, it's open-ended," the ex-admiral told the Beeb. "Around 50 days are the sort of figures people have been talking about."

"I hate the very thought of doing it," he added. ®

* Sub's note - if you think it should be "court-martialled", "court martialled" or "caught/marshalled", we'd love to hear from you. Mr Page, however, wants none of it.

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