DAVID Blunkett wants to introduce legislation for compulsory identity cards for all.

He claims this will help put a check on the soaring increase in the numbers of asylum-seekers - an increase, incidentally, which, until recently Mr Blunkett denied. He says that it will help the authorities to identify those who are legitimately entitled to benefits and so reduce the massive amount of fraud now going on. Unfortunately for Mr Blunkett, the introduction of identity cards will do neither of these things.

Other European countries which do have identity cards have similar problems to ours concerning illegal asylum-seekers. The fact that they do not have the asylum problem on the scale that it exists in Britain is simply because their methods of policing are stricter than ours and illegal immigrants into, say, France and Italy do not find it so easy to claim benefits to which they are not entitled.

Neither would identity cards do anything to reduce fraud. They would increase it. Time and again, journalists have proved that it is easy to get kitted out with as much forged documentation as you like: passport; credit card; utility bill. Does Mr Blunkett imagine that the fraudsters and forgers who are so adept at producing fakes of all these documents will somehow be flummoxed when it comes to faking identity cards?

Besides, there is an unwritten law which states roughly that every prohibition creates extra opportunities for the criminal. Just think of the prohibition of alcohol in the US in the 1920s. Think closer to home and of the drugs trade which prospers because drugs are classified as illegal. A system of identity cards would provide the criminal underworld with their biggest windfall in years.

And then there's the cost of setting up the identity cards system, estimated at anything between £1.5bn and £3bn. When the public services such as education and health care are failing, would the public really like to see billions of their hard-earned income disappear into the extra taxation required to pay for a scheme that is hair-brained and useless?

More serious than even these formidable objections is the threat which identity cards deal to civil liberties. There is a fundamental difference between most continental systems of law and the regulation of public life and the system which we enjoy in Britain. Under the continental system of human rights - developed originally out of the Napoleonic Code - citizens' rights are specifically prescribed by central government. In this country we have for a millennium rejoiced in a far more civilised way of doing things. Here everything is permitted - except that which is expressly forbidden by the law.

We have always regarded the continentals' way as unjust. We insist that a man going about his lawful business should not have to prove his identity or his innocence to a policeman. There is more than control-freakery in Mr Blunkett's proposal: it is one more step towards the totalitarian state.

*Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill, in the City of London, and Chaplain to the Stock Exchange