ID cards edge closer to reality in Britain
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ID cards edge closer to reality in Britain

July 30, 2004/AFP

Britain's government won cautious backing from a parliamentary committee over plans to introduce national identity cards, alarming rights groups who say they infringe civil liberties.

Home Secretary David Blunkett is floating legislation that would see high-tech ID documents -- incorporating microchips with biometric information such as fingerprints or an iris scan -- phased in from 2007.

"This ID card scheme should go ahead, but the government must take serious note of the criticism we make of the way the plan is being developed," said John Denham, chairman of the cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee.

"We need more clarity on the way the card and the register will work in practice."

His committee's 100-page report concluded that the government had "made a convincing case" for cards, but warned that they represented a "significant change in the relationship between state and individual."

The committee was "extremely concerned" about plans to give Britain's MI5 and MI6 security services "nearly unfettered access" to the database designed to hold details of every British citizen.

Since the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, Prime Minister Tony Blair ( news - web sites )'s government has increasingly pushed ID cards, arguing that they are a key step in the fight against terrorism.

"Obviously people like terrorists rely on being able to obtain fake identities, especially in order to travel across borders," a Home Office spokesman told AFP.

Although ID cards would not become compulsory until at least 2013, civil liberties groups are up in arms at the proposals, and argue that citizens are already turned off by the idea.

"I think one of the reasons why people in Britain are becoming less enthusiastic is because of the experience in European countries," said Barry Hugill, a spokesman for civil rights activist group Liberty.

"The people we were told are responsible for the tragic bombings in Madrid all had perfectly valid ID cards on them," he told AFP. "If you want to be a martyr you're not worried about people knowing your identity."

The group said it was not surprised that the committee's nine-month inquiry had produced such a critical report.

Blunkett, meanwhile, said he was pleased to secure broad backing for the legislation and guaranteed there would be proper safeguards against "function creep" whereby the cards would be required for more and more official business.

The last time Britons were given ID cards was during World War II. They were abolished in 1952.

Most if not all other European Union ( news - web sites ) member states issue ID cards, and carrying them is compulsory in many countries including Belgium, Germany and Portugal.

David George, an expert on terrorism and counter-terrorism from Newcastle University in northeast England, thinks Britain's reluctance to accept ID cards as readily as its European neighbours is tied up with its citizens' relationship with the state.

"I don't think there's any particular reason why Britain should be different from any other European country in terms of security," he told AFP.

"I think within British society, the culture of the freedom of the individual is certainly a good deal more marked in terms of individual rights and personal liberties than it is elsewhere on continental Europe," he said.

British citizens have mixed feelings over the card. While acknowledging the possible security benefits, they remain apprehensive about including intimate personal details that could be accessed without their prior consent.

"It could be useful for cutting out quite a lot of fraud, but it's just the potential all-seeing knowledge that people will have, that worries me," said David Bradbury, 34, interviewed in central London this week.

For Meryll, another London office worker who declined to give her last name, it was only the criminals that ought to look out. "If you've got nothing to hide I can't see what the problem is," she said.

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