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Yet another Cabinet-level ID card farce

Major-era identity document plans found in junk shop

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Book extract Today, we publish the next extract from SA Mathieson's book on ID cards in Britain, a hot potato of politics, technology and more politics.

January 1995 saw an episode which might have been rejected by the writers of Yes, Minister as a little too silly, when the Cabinet Office’s confidential plans for the national ID card, along with Cabinet discussion papers, were found in a government surplus filing cabinet, bought in a junk shop in Camden for £35.57.

The Guardian reported that these showed that Michael Howard was now keen to introduce the scheme, despite police reservations and Cabinet opposition. It included a document from Lord Wakeham, the lord privy seal who had chaired the GEN24 committee on developing card systems, to prime minister John Major from May 1994. This said that Mr Howard had “explained this morning that there had been growing interest in the case for a national identity card, and signs that the general public now find such a card more acceptable than in the past. He suggested that the time may now be ripe for a government document to test opinion on the subject.”

“I ought to record that some concern was expressed that an identity card would be contrary to our deregulatory stance and could prove unpopular. Also, chief police officers remain opposed, which could cause presentational problems,” added Lord Wakeham.

The leaked papers also included a report from William Waldegrave, then chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, praising the development of smart card technology – cards with microchips, now standard for bank cards and many others. There was also an insight into how the government would make identity cards voluntary: “Take-up could be maximised by arranging an ‘opt out’ system and by making the card an attractive practical proposition,” Mr Waldegrave wrote.

In April, a senior Downing Street official told The Times: “There are going to be identity cards of some shape or form, for example in the social security field. The only question is how wide it should go.” The green consultation paper which followed in May offered six options, including quite narrow ones, as the government showed more signs of backtracking. One option was to treat 35m driving licences, which from 1998 would include photos for the newly-licensed, as identity cards, along with photocards for the 19m people claiming social security benefits and pensions. This option would avoid the need for new legislation, unless the government wanted to issue non-driver driving licences or make them usable as passports within Europe. Conservative MPs ranged from strong support to opposition.

The Guardian quoted Jack Straw, Labour’s shadow home secretary, as saying Labour would oppose compulsory identity cards as “alien to the British tradition” of individual liberty. He added that the party was not opposed to voluntary cards in principle, although the case had yet to be proved. More robustly, Liberty said that it would campaign against any national identity card scheme, including a voluntary one, as this would effectively be compulsory in all but name, as those who refused would become the targets of suspicion.

The party conferences saw new Labour leader Tony Blair pledging to pay for an extra 3,000 police officers – by abandoning the identity card scheme, now estimated to cost £600m. Nearly 15 years later, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto for the 2010 general election pledged to pay for exactly the same number of extra officers by abolishing the identity scheme Tony Blair had introduced when prime minister. ®

Copyright SA Mathieson 2013

This is an extract from SA Mathieson’s book, Card declined: how Britain said no to ID cards, three times over, available in e-book for £2.99 (PDF or Kindle) or in print for £4.99. Click here for more in the series.

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