Just another way to bully the weakest

ID cards will be unpopular and hard to administer. They won't even prevent serious crime. But they w

The government's struggle to regain the affection of Labour supporters has begun. Discontent won't be bought off by abandoning top-up fees and foundation hospitals, or by giving the Ba'ath Party a second chance to slaughter its opponents by the west's premature exit from Iraq. Rather, there will be palliatives that appear to uphold core Labour values. If leaks to the papers are to be believed, each newborn baby will receive a "child trust fund" of £500, which will be a small but welcome attempt to limit rampaging inequality. Hereditary peers will be removed from the House of Lords, although they won't be replaced by elected representatives because the Prime Minister believes the British are unfit to choose who should sit in "their" second chamber.

Not many will worry about democracy when Tony Blair promises to meet the great concern of Labour backbenchers by committing his administration, at last, to ban hunting with dogs. (Farmers will remain free to shoot and poison foxes but, the reasoning of the remnants of the Labour movement runs, if the government won't tax the rich it must at least stop them dressing up in silly costumes and enjoying themselves.)

Then there is the authoritarianism that has been a signature of the party for a decade, and is credited with keeping middle- and working-class constituencies happy. The perennially busy Home Office has two proposals: to impose its fifth clampdown in ten years on asylum-seekers; and to force everyone, including asylum-seekers, to carry identity cards. We have become so used to the Labour Party agreeing to any restriction on liberty, however sinister or ridiculous, that it is a shock to hear that repressive stunts which have served the party so well for so long may be losing their appeal. David Blunkett is facing serious opposition, for once. Not on the treatment of asylum-seekers, where anything goes, as we shall see, but on the plan to revive the wartime expedient of forcing law-abiding citizens to prove they are who they say they are. John Prescott, Peter Hain, Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke are against it. The corpse of cabinet government is showing a flicker of a pulse, and Blunkett has a fight on his hands.

You can see why. Since the abolition of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Home Office has had a fair claim to be the most incompetent department of state. The prisons are crammed to the rafters but the Home Office can't exhort the courts to punish minor offenders in the community because it hasn't invested in training probation officers. Attempts to improve efficiency by bringing new technology to the prison, immigration and probation services have been costly fiascos. Undeterred, it now wants to make people's entitlement to services dependent on the production of a card. Even if you leave aside the principled objection that English common law has never, in the absence of war, accepted that people who are not behaving suspiciously should be forced to account for themselves, a practical objection remains: what happens if you lose it? Can you really expect the Home Office to save your bacon by getting a new card to you by return of post?

Most of the department's blunders harm people the majority of the population despise - immigrants, refugees, criminals. If the Home Office runs true to form, however, the same newspapers which are now shouting that there's nothing wrong with forcing people to carry a card - we all have credit cards, after all - will be shouting about the white, middle-class and middle-aged victims of government incompetence who can't get a hospital appointment because they don't have the right piece of plastic. Tellingly, Home Office plans to force all working adults to give their employers certificates that state what crimes, if any, they have committed have been postponed indefinitely. Compared with producing identity cards for the entire population, this was a modest bureaucratic task. But well-justified fears that the government's inept Criminal Records Bureau would finger blameless citizens as villains have scuppered it.

Until now, attempts by successive governments to impose ID cards have met the same fate. Senior police officers have been divided on the issue for years, with sceptics wondering whether compulsory cards would alienate a public whose co-operation they need, while making life easier for serious criminals, who would use fake ID to gain spurious respectability.

For a while it seemed as if the atrocities of 11 September would allow Blunkett to push ahead. He floated the idea for a few weeks but then fell silent. The same arguments used to dismiss the idea that ID cards can help in the fight against ordinary crime apply with extra force to terrorists. Even George Bush didn't want cards. He was prepared to tear up the Bill of Rights and the Geneva Convention after the attacks. But he rejected suggestions that the US government should introduce a federal identity card, on the sensible grounds that any clued-up mass murderer would equip himself with a stolen or forged card. The FBI investigation into the attacks confirmed the point when officers arrested a resident of Virginia and accused him of taking bribes from two of the hijackers in return for a statement that they were bona fide local residents entitled to a State of Virginia ID card.

The effort to win the favour of press and public appeared doomed until Blunkett hit on the justification for any measure: that ID cards would hurt illegal immigrants. Without cards, they would not be able to work or get access to healthcare, education and other public services. Obviously, the whole population would have to carry them or the deterrent would not be effective. But the loss of freedom was a small price to pay for stopping scroungers sneaking into Britain and living high on the hog at the public's expense. Many years ago, the columnist Neal Ascherson wrote that it was always worth keeping an eye on how governments treated foreigners because it showed how they would treat the rest of the population if they got the chance. Blunkett is determined to confirm Ascherson's prophecy. To turn the screw, the government is cutting legal aid for asylum-seekers and curtailing rights of appeal against decisions to deport.

Downing Street believes Labour MPs will not like the stern package, but this flatters the MPs. I have written much about refugees over the years and have learnt to stop being astonished at the limitless capacity of otherwise politically correct politicians to persecute the vulnerable.

The big lie about asylum is that the government has nothing against genuine refugees. In fact, its measures are just as likely to stop authentic refugees as economic migrants. Indeed, the truth is precisely the opposite of what the government claims: its policies favour economic migrants. The National Health Service scours the world for migrant nurses. From May next year, eastern Europeans, including the gypsies that the press loathes, will be free to enter Britain, but not the rest of the European Union, because the government is desperate for immigrant workers. Bona fide refugees, meanwhile, are turned into illegal immigrants by the neat expedient of making it impossible to travel to Britain legally.

What would be a scandal in a halfway intelligent society can be covered up easily. Blunkett's latest incitement of prejudice is a case in point. The restrictions on rights of appeal raise two questions: why do so many asylum-seekers appeal against deportation orders and why do so many win? The figures are staggering. One in five asylum-seekers is granted the right to stay in Britain by the Home Office. This is frequently quoted along with its corollary, that four out of five must be thieving "illegals", here to sponge off the state. But, when appeals are heard, the 20 per cent rises to between 40 and 50 per cent. It is as if the number of "not guilty" verdicts from the courts doubled when cases went to the Court of Appeal.

Familiar Home Office incompetence, leavened in this instance with malice, explains the clogging of the legal system with appeals from honest claimants who ought to have been accepted as genuine on first hearing. The Home Office has a culture of disbelief. Its anxiety to refuse borders on the comic. If it can invent a reason to reject a refugee it will do so. David Rhys Jones, from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, cites the instance of a Ugandan woman who was refused asylum because the Home Office said it did not accept that it was dangerous for her to return to Iraq - a country she had never been to and knew nothing about. The Immigration Advisory Service accuses the government of "spinning" reports of oppression to make dictatorships seem kind and gentle administrations from which no reasonable person would want to flee. Amnesty International points out that the Home Office does not even keep records of interviews, so determined is it to avoid scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly, given the fever to reject, the system is clogged with appeals and a huge amount of public money is wasted on legal aid. Unsurprisingly, large numbers of appellants are vindicated.

Rather than tackle the prejudice against genuine refugees in the Home Office, the government prefers to remove rights to legal aid and rights to appeal, and make it harder for victims of persecution to find a haven. In this, it is being true to what has, after all, been the tradition of the Labour Party for more than a decade and which must, in fairness, now be counted as a core Labour value.