Thousands of Muslim women will be exempted from having to show their faces on identity cards as the Government moves to allay fears among British Muslims that the new cards will be used to target them in the ‘war on terror’.
As David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, faced attack for not allowing enough debate over the introduction of the first ID cards in Britain since the Second World War, officials made it clear that if Muslim women do not want to reveal their faces in public, that would be respected.
Instead of a photograph, there would be an exemption for certain people, who would only have to give fingerprint and iris-recognition data.
Although the exact type of information held on the card has still to be finalised in negotiation with other industrialised nations, Home Office sources made it clear that they backed the idea.
‘We have had constructive discussions with the Muslim community and want to assure them we are sensitive to their points of view,’ said a source close to Blunkett.
The Home Secretary moved after representations from the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). Officials on the council told The Observer that although they support the idea of identity cards they are concerned that they could be used to persecute ethnic minorities.
‘As we have seen with the anti-terror laws and with stop and search, if powers are used in the wrong way they can have the effect of singling out a community for no good reason,’ said a legal advisor to the MCB.
‘We are not against ID cards as such, but we want to ensure that they are used properly.’
Blunkett will announce tomorrow a £3 billion scheme to introduce identity cards to Britain. Although at first the scheme will be voluntary, the Home Office will argue that the country should move to a compulsory scheme by 2012.
By then the public would not be forced to carry them but would have to produce a card within a limited period if asked by the police.
Blunkett has said privately that he wants people to carry them at all times.
The cards will cost £35 or between £70 and £80 for one combined with a driving licence or passport. They will contain name, age and date and will be linked to a national database which will contain information on criminal records, health details and social security information.
Civil liberties groups are set to condemn the proposals, which they say will put more power in the hands of the state and are likely to be technically unworkable.
‘The public have serious and understandable concerns that the Government will simply not be able to handle the data they will be attempting to collect,’ said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty.
The Earl of Selborne, chairman of the Royal Society’s influential science in society committee, said that the public should be aware of the dangers of ID cards.
‘There has been a lack of public debate and there is a very real danger that we are sleepwalking into our technological future,’ he said.
‘The public suggested that they should hold information that might be useful in a medical emergency such as blood group or allergies.
‘But what if the cards also held data about our genetic disposition to specific diseases, or revealed information about our lifestyles that affect health, such as how much we are overweight or how much alcohol we are drinking, updated daily.
‘These are technically possible in the future, so we should be discussing whether they are desirable.’
Blunkett will argue that ID cards will help fight against organised crime, illegal immigration, terrorism, identity fraud and ‘health tourism’.