2 April, 2004: What's on the cards?

[ Home page | Web log ]

So, I go away on holiday and come back to find that the Government's immigration policy is in crisis. This is welcome news, as it tells us that the Government actually have an immigration policy; so far it seemed they'd just been cribbing it from the pages of the Daily Express. And while the departure of Beverley Hughes -- who, apart from her crowing over having halved the number of refugees to whom we give sanctuary seems to have been relatively harmless -- is neither particularly happy or unhappy news, with any luck it'll turn out that Blunkett knew more than he said about the present cock-up, and he'll have to go too, perhaps taking his obsession with ID cards with him. (Update: no, as John Band points out, Hughes was also responsible for lying to Parliament over the results of the ID Cards consultation. So it's good riddance to her, frankly. To have forgotten that detail is a bit embarrassing. Oh well....)

Naturally, ID cards, the government's current policy strange attractor, have popped up again in relation to the current row. In yesterday's press conference, referring to the threat of terrorism, Tony Blair told us that,

The second point in relation to ID cards is that I think there is no longer a civil liberties objection to that in the vast majority of quarters. There is a series of logistical questions, of practical questions, those need to be resolved, but that in my judgment now, the logistics is the only time delay in it, otherwise I think it needs to move forward.

but others have picked up and run with the idea. For instance, otherwise-sensible Labour MP Clive Soley said this morning on Today that,

I think ID cards will help us win this argument.

-- referring to the current synthetic furore over immigration policy. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis -- who rather theatrically described the various cock-ups in Romania and Bulgaria as `disasters', as if people had actually been killed or something, rather than simply a few people who would be allowed into the UK anyway getting their visas early via some creative paperwork -- stayed off the ID cards issue, but to counter him the BBC dredged up John Denham, previously a minister at the Home Office. Now, Denham resigned in protest at the war in Iraq and presumably therefore has a certain sympathy for tyranny and the apparatus of tyranny; naturally, therefore, he's a supporter of compulsory ID cards:

James Naughtie: Do you suspect [the introduction of ID cards] might be quite close?

John Denham: Well, personally I have been a supporter of compulsory ID cards for quite a number of years, er, and I think the... to me the only obstacle now is demonstrating that we've actually got a technology that can work and be secure, because nobody wants a disaster, but I would say if... err, if we have, it would be hugely helpful in dealing with these very difficult issues.

Of course, he didn't actually explain how a card would be helpful, but that's what we've come to expect. Naturally, James Naughtie didn't press him on this point, but instead asked,

James Naughtie: Do you think it might be... I won't say a way out for the government, but it might be something that would assist the government in trying to get across the idea that it's on top of the whole issue?

John Denham: I think it would be very popular with the public. I think it would be a mistake to think that we can... if you like, say `well, we're going to do ID cards'. When you're talking about processing of visa applications, as we've had in Romania and er, Bulgaria, the government is going to need to demonstrate that those systems are working properly, and I think they must do that and it would be a mistake to think you can answer one question with another one, however much I would welcome the introduction of ID cards.

By which he means, no, they wouldn't be helpful. And you can see why. In Romania and Bulgaria the British Embassies were issuing visas on the strength of forged documents, in exactly the same way that the Home Office will find itself issuing ID cards to people with forged documents here, if the cards are brought in. And in the Sheffield cock-up, passports were being issued to people who were entitled to them anyway, but with fewer checks than would normally be applied. Such people would, presumably, have identity cards in a Blunkett future -- with even fewer checks, since the Home Office will have to issue millions of the bloody things.

Blair also seems to think that an ID card will stop terrorism. At times, Blunkett has disagreed, but since he's prepared to say one thing to Parliament and quite another to the Today programme, I don't think we should take any of his pronouncements on what the cards are to be used for any more seriously than Denham's.

Terrorism is, of course, in the news at the moment because some alleged terrorists have been arrested following the discovery of a quantity of ammonium nitrate in a lock-up garage in London. We might want to consider how ID cards might have assisted the Police in conducting an operation such as this. To start with, it is worth noting that the alleged terrorists are all British, and therefore would be given ID cards in the Future Republic of Blunkettstan. Their ID cards would, presumably, not be marked POTENTIAL TERRORIST in big letters, and anyway most policemen are perfectly able to distinguish people with dark skin without consulting their papers. (One correspondent, remarking on my piece on crime and racism, noted that when he had worked in the City of London shortly after the erection of the `ring of steel' anti-terrorist barricades the Police manning those fortifications had chiefly been stopping and searching young black men passing back and forth. This surprised him, as he had not imagined that the British Caribbean community formed part of the IRA's natural constituency. No doubt the City of London Police felt that you could never be too careful....)

We do not know exactly how the cache of ammonium nitrate in the current case was located by the Police, but since the operation was conducted with the assistance of MI5 and the Pakistani intelligence service we can assume that it involved techniques from the Usborne Book Of Spycraft such as tapping telephones and pretending to be a terrorist in order to infiltrate an Islamist cell. You cannot demand someone's ID card when you are listening to their telephone calls -- that would give the game away -- and presumably an MI5 spy, having infiltrated such a group, would not be in a position to demand `Papiere, bitte?' without arousing the suspicions of those around him. In fact, it's hard to see how ID cards could have been at all helpful in this investigation, since all the participants would have had the card (so they couldn't be thrown out of the country for failing to present it) and anyway their names were clearly known to the authorities.

So we come back to the eternal question, which is, why on earth do Blair and Blunkett want ID cards? I remain baffled, and the latest attempt to bring them in through the back door isn't any more enlightening. And it's not just me. STAND, who do actual research on this topic, have no idea either.

(It is sometimes said that nobody's really interested in the cards, but rather in the register of population which would have to accompany them. Supposedly this is a Good Thing because it would help in the provision of public services -- though it's hard to see how, since we already have a pretty good idea of the size and circumstances of the population in different parts of the country; knowing that information down to single individuals wouldn't be of much assistance. And in practical terms, such a register would have all the same problems as the card does, especially if the ID number assigned to an individual on the register is used publicly (like social security numbers are in the United States). But if that were the case, I'd have expected the Government to start by announcing a population register, then move on to the cards later, since a population register is less obviously intrusive than the cards will be and can always be sold to Daily Mail readers on the basis that it can be used to keep tabs on nasty foreigners, paedophiles, Guardian readers and threats to house prices. Why start with the cards -- unpopular and easy to understand -- first? So while this might be the explanation, it still doesn't make much sense to me.)

(Update: as a service to my readers, here is a summary of the major parties' positions on ID cards: (I've only included serious parties, not fascists or nutters like the BNP and UKIP)

Party Position
Conservative Opposed, at the moment. See, for instance, this press release by David Davis MP; but note that Conservative policy is subject to change as opportunity demands, and previous Conservative governments have toyed with the idea of ID cards from time to time.
Green Party Opposed. See, e.g., this briefing.
Labour Presently in favour of bringing them in `gradually', as announced in the last Queen's Speech.
Liberal Democrats Opposed. See, for instance, this press release by Mark Oaten MP condemning ID card plans as a waste of money.
Plaid Cymru Opposed. See, for instance, this press release by Simon Thomas MP, condemning ID card plans as useless and a waste of money.
Scottish National Party Opposed. See, for instance, this press release by Anabelle Ewing MP, condemning Blunkett's ID card plans as interfering with areas which are the prerogative of the Scottish Parliament, and this one by Roseanna Cunningham MSP pointing out that ID cards will be of no use in fighting crime or terrorism.

-- hope this will be helpful. Thanks to Martin Lucas-Smith, who pointed out the omission of the Green Party from that list -- they count as a serious party here, since they have won some seats in the Scottish and European Parliaments, in the London Assembly and on numerous local councils.)

So that was another long rant on ID cards. You're probably bored of those by now, so here are some holiday photos to cheer you up:

You think they're cute, but I think they're sinister... Reflections Rise and shine! Windmill

Copyright (c) 2004 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.