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Labour promises 'voluntary' compulsory ID card

You don't have to be confused to live here, but it helps

The "voluntary" ID card returned yesterday with the publication of the Labour's Party's election manifesto, but it's once again rather difficult to find out what's voluntary about it. According to the wording: "We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports." So, what's voluntary here?

A Labour Party spokesman told us first: "It's voluntary. You don't have to carry it." This seemed doubtful to us, but we asked if, in that case, you were still going to be registered for an ID card when you registered for a passport. He said he'd call us back.

Later, he explained that ID cards would initially be "piggybacking" on passports, and that you would be offered an ID card along with your passport. Which, we suggested, you could always refuse? But you'd still be registered for an ID card, right? Possibly. He conceded that the data collected for passports would be pretty similar to the data collected for ID cards, but pointed out that "we're not at the stage of having worked out all the details of how it would work. But it would work at passport renewal."

We suspect that it is "voluntary" in the sense that it is a matter of personal choice whether or not you want to have a passport, and that if you choose not to have a passport, nobody will force you to register for an ID card until, er, they do. We've heard this somewhere before.

The manifesto justifies the introduction of ID cards as follows: "Across the world there is a drive to increase the security of identity documents and we cannot be left behind. From next year we are introducing biometric 'ePassports' [this makes the slippage from late 2005 to 2006 official]. It makes sense to provide citizens with an equally secure identity card to protect them at home from identity theft and clamp down on illegal working and fraudulent use of public services. We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports."

We'll save asking them how an ID card protects you from credit card fraud for another day, but the wording here is interesting. Following the stories earlier this week that fingerprints would be added to passports under royal prerogative without needing parliament's approval, the Home Office has been downplaying the matter. No decision, it claims, has been made although it confirms that if the Government wants to add fingerprints under royal prerogative, it's perfectly free to do so.

But the Labour manifesto makes a pretty clear commitment that ID cards will use fingerprints, and if ID cards are "piggybacking" on passports, and are being rolled out as people renew their passports, then the passport offices are going to have to be collecting fingerprints, right? Which means compulsory attendance at passport offices on passport renewal is going to have to happen sooner rather than later. You could reasonably take the view that the spurious argument of 'we need all this for passports so we might as well have ID cards' has been reversed. Now, we need to put things that aren't needed for passports into passports in order to support their presence on ID cards. You could also reasonably wonder what it is about adding fingerprints to passports that the Home Office thinks it hasn't decided on yet.

Other technological highlights from the Labour manifesto include: - more use of tagging and tracking to deal with the most persistent young offenders
- Every offender will be supervised after release; we will increase the use of electronic tagging and we will test the use of compulsory lie detectors to monitor convicted sex offenders
- Fast-track all unfounded asylum seekers with electronic tagging where necessary and more use of detention as we expand the number of detention centres.
- we will introduce new laws to help catch and convict those involved in helping to plan terrorist activity or who glorify or condone acts of terror.
- New control orders will enable police and security agencies to keep track of those they suspect of planning terrorist outrages including bans on who they can contact or meet, electronic tagging and curfew orders, and for those who present the highest risk, a requirement to stay permanently at home.

It's not immediately clear how the new control orders differ from the old control orders, introduced last month in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. Existing terror laws also already cover a wide range of things that might be incitement to or apologism for terrorism, so the planned new laws dealing with those who "glorify or condone" terrorism may be more about introducing mechanisms for finding them. File under surveillance? Overall, it's clear that the IT fight against crime and terror will be placing a lot of faith in tagging and tracking and, as we've been predicting for a couple of years now, this will end in tears.

The manifesto also commits to examining the potential of a national road pricing system, and by 2006, "every school supported" will offer all pupils access to computers at home. This may simply mean that every school that offers all pupils access to computers at home will offer all pupils access to computers at home, we know not and can't be bothered asking.

Finally, a small section headed "Copyright in a digital age" may or may not be ominous. "We will modernise copyright and other forms of protection of intellectual property rights so that they are appropriate for the digital age," it says. Which is something we're all in favour of, but we fear they may disagree with us on what is "appropriate". It continues: "We will use our presidency of the EU [this expires on 31st December, so we'll hear about it very soon] to look at how to ensure content creators can protect their innovations in a digital age. Piracy is a growing threat and we will work with industry to protect against it." This does not sound like good news, necessarily. Still anything that might stop Alastair Campbell's minions nicking other people's dossiers off the Internet surely isn't all bad. ®

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