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Is it or isn't it? Brown keeps bottling the ID card question

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For the third time in four days, Gordon Brown has sown doubts about the future of compulsory ID cards for UK citizens. Speaking at prime minister's question time today, Brown confirmed that it was "policy" for ID cards to become compulsory, but added the rider that this was subject to a vote in parliament.

As indeed is the case, but speaking to the Observer on Sunday, Brown had said that under the government's "proposals" there was "no compulsion for existing British citizens." When Tory leader David Cameron queried this in the Commons today, Brown responded that "it has to be voted on by parliament", his apparent contention being therefore that there is no current compulsion, the government would like compulsion, but that compulsion nevertheless cannot exist until parliament has said that it will. Or something like that.

His response to a similar question at his monthly press conference yesterday was somewhat more extensive: "That is the option that we have left ourselves open to but we haven't legislated for it. I think over the course of the next few months people will see that there is some wisdom in the argument that we have put forward for identity cards themselves. If you look at the information that we are asking people to give for their identity card it is not much more than is actually required for a passport, but the advantage people have from an identity card is that that information cannot be used without biometric identification. So that is why we are starting with the foreign nationals and that is why we will move further, linking if you like passport information to biometrics over the course of the next few years, but we leave open a parliamentary vote on the decision about compulsion."

The questioner had merely asked him if he thought that in order to be effective, ID cards needed to be compulsory. As several years of speeches, policy documents and Acts of Parliament make clear, the answer to this question is "Yes." The fact that Brown has trouble with this is in itself significant, and the fact that he describes compulsion as "the option that we have left open to ourselves" is even more so.

The transcript of the Observer interview that started this one off (the relevant section has been helpfully reproduced by No2ID, here) presents a confused and somewhat inarticulate Brown falling between several stools, stressing the importance of ID cards for foreign nationals in order to combat illegal immigration,* while presenting ID cards for the rest of the population as something that is still subject to discussion: "But look this is part of the debate. And I accept, look we are a country that prides ourselves on liberty, in civil liberties. It’s very important that any debate about this starts from what is the problem you are trying to deal with. What would you have done in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, the twentieth century and the twenty first century?

"But the very fact that you’ve got biometrics now in a way that you didn’t have two centuries ago gives you opportunities to protect people’s identity in a way that you could not have done two centuries ago and I don’t think we should rule out the use of that. In fact I don’t actually think most of the general public think that the use of biometrics is in itself wrong, either for private transactions or for passports or whatever."

So does he strongly believe that ID cards should be compulsory, or just something that "I don't think we should rule out"? He seems unable to come up with a clear, straight answer, and the opposition parties having noted this, they're going to carry on asking the question. ®

* As we're noticing the precise words Brown uses today, we might as well also notice how he presents ID cards for foreign nationals: "if someone comes to this country as a foreign national, given the worries about illegal immigration, they should carry some form of identity..." It will not, as the government repeatedly told us some years back, be compulsory to carry an ID card. Unless, apparently, you're an immigrant to a country that: "prides ourselves on liberty, in civil liberties."

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