A survey carried out for the think tank Reform claims 81 per cent of the British public favour the introduction of compulsory ID cards, with 29 per cent thinking it would be a very good idea, and 52 per cent a good idea. The survey, of 1,022 adults, was carried out by ICM between 1st and 2nd December, and reflects the largely non fact-based public viewpoint that cards are harmless, would tackle terror, fraud and illegal immigration, and 'what have you got to hide anyway?'
The survey does however signpost several vulnerabilities of the scheme, the 'Madrid' factor and cost, and as the public grasps the full significance of the National Identity Register, this could present a third problem. Reform presents itself as independent and "strictly non-party", although its high command has something of a Tory track record. But it has not yet taken a position on ID cards, and it's perfectly conceivable that it could come out against, once it's balanced free-market and libertarian imperatives versus security.
Reform says it will produce a paper assessing the ID scheme "shortly". The questions posed by the survey seem relatively balanced (certainly compared to what passes for balance in government circles these days), although in a couple of areas they have at least arguably been influenced by received wisdom. For example, the sample was asked whether they agreed most with the first or the second statement, "ID cards will help to prevent benefit fraud, or ID cards will inevitably be forged which will undermine their effectiveness against fraud." The Register's view (and we can cite sources) here is that they will not help significantly against benefit fraud, because only a very small amount of this relates to ID fraud, and that it is by no means certain that they will be forged. So what to answer?
All the questions and responses can be found here, and overall the survey can probably be best viewed as an indicator of public prejudices on a scheme they're currently fairly ill-informed on.
As regards the 'Madrid' factor, the split here is relatively close, with 56 per cent believing ID cards will help in the "war on terrorism", while 39 per cent thought "ID cards did not help prevent the Madrid bombings so what difference would they make here." Now, this is particularly interesting because it's also one that the Home Office has identified as a key area of vulnerability.
Speaking at a press event last week Home Office Minister Des Browne said that he knew ID cards helped against terrorism because he'd spoken to the Spanish, who had said ID cards had helped Spain in the fight against the Basque group ETA. The Home Office's latest word here is "interdict", which is helpful because ID cards do not have to be seen to stop specific incidents happening, they can be justified on the basis that they "interdict" the support networks terrorists use in order to carry out specific incidents.
There was however a slight snag with Browne's claim even before ETA set off a string of bombs last weekend. ETA has been active in Spain for 30-40 years, and seems not to have been massively effected by ID cards for most of that period. The factors that have helped Spain to overcome ETA have been better cross-border cooperation with France, the compromising of ETA's command structures, and a substantial decline in public support for the group. Similar factors affected the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The survey also reveals that 31 per cent of people don't want to pay for cards at all, and that a further 30 per cent would only be willing to pay £10. Nevertheless, when presented with the actual cost of £35 for ID card alone and £85 if issued with a passport, 68 per cent in total still thought ID cards were a good idea. Price is therefore a vulnerability which the government can overcome, as long as it can keep the public thinking that ID cards will do what it claims they will.
Overall cost could however be an issue. Presented with an estimate of £5.5 billion for the cost of the scheme, 46 per cent were more inclined to think that the money would be better used to fight crime in other ways, with 51 per cent agreeing that the ID scheme was worth it. Further cost revelations and a few more government IT disasters could change this very quickly. For the record, 33 per cent think the Government's IT record means the scheme is bound to go wrong, while 64 per cent, presented with the decidedly leading suggestion "The Government already runs large databases such as for passports and driving licences and it is quite capable of running a national ID database properly", agree with that. Now, if the running of these databases was viewed as totally satisfactory, why is it that David Blunkett places so much importance on not using them, and starting with his vaunted "clean database?" ®