ID Cards – the debate in a nutshell

Courtesy of The Current Outlook we have this perfect illustration; from the House of Lords; of the nature of debate on the introduction of ID Cards.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, a moment ago the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said that it was not for lawyers or judges to protect individual freedoms, but for a democratic society to do so. It is an interesting thought that, in April this year, there were protests in Shanghai aimed at the Japanese consulate. The point causing the protests was that, in the view of the people of China, Japanese textbooks played down the Japanese atrocities in the last war. At first, the government of China appeared to support the protests because it was part of their policy to do so, but after about a fortnight they got nervous, and hundreds of policemen turned up at Tiananmen Square. To do what? To check and record the numbers of the identity cards of people who were out to protest. It was a method of controlling their protest, so that people would know that if they wanted to take to the streets for any reason—whether the government supported it or not—they were marked people and the government would know who they were. Imagine if that were to have happened during the march against the war prior to the invasion of Iraq, and what riots there would have been in this country if the police had set out to
mark and number the identity cards of people taking part in that protest, or indeed any protest that has taken place over the past few years.

The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made huge claims for identity cards. They were apparently the answer to globalised crime, and would prevent terrorism, forgery and fraud. It seemed rather like saying that the possession of a driving licence would prevent road traffic offences.

Lord Giddens: My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, I did not say that. I said that identity cards had to be surrounded by an appropriate framework of policing.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, that is right. Nevertheless, the claim was put forward that if there was policing—just as there was in Shanghai and in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese police—all those problems would be solved. Those of us who practise in the criminal courts treat that sort of suggestion with some reserve.

It is said that the Bill will protect my identity. I think that it hands over the control of my identity to a central government database. As my noble friend Lord Holme put it, it puts my identity at the disposal of the state. It is not just the basic information that will be on the database; it will be cross-referenced by numbers to my medical records, tax records, work records and—if I have them—criminal records. The history of this country is a struggle against authoritarian regimes such as those of Napoleon and Hitler, and against collective societies for individual freedom. Knowing the history of the party represented opposite, it strikes me as strange that it should set about creating an instrument that may be manipulated in future for authoritarian reasons. Knowledge is power, and we are putting power in the hands of a government who may in future have the most malign intentions.

Why do I say that? Under Clause 19, data that I have provided to the central register may be handed over without my consent, and without my knowledge, to the intelligence services—much good it will do them. It may also be handed over to the police, the tax authorities—that could be a little more interesting—the VAT authorities and any designated government department. I simply will not know if the information collected about my private life has been handed over to all those government departments to use as they will. Clause 14 is about the provision by the Secretary of State of registrable facts for verification with consent, so if I consent certain pieces of my private information may be handed over to accredited organisations. As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, that could be a mortgage provider, a bank or a retailer. When I want to buy something or get a loan, I have to give the answers to questions that are held in the database. I really would object in Sainsbury’s to having to tell the person behind the till my mother’s maiden name. As it was Jones, it would not help anyone very much in Wales.

The other matter that concerns me is whether the register is accurate. I would like to see clearly set out in the Bill a right for the citizen to see what is on his file.

I recall that secret files were at one time kept on lawyers by the Lord Chancellor’s Department. A colleague of mine suffered for many years from information that he subsequently discovered was on his files suggesting that, confused with me, he had lost eight successive general elections as a Liberal candidate. It held his career back enormously. Is the register accurate? Nothing in the Bill that I can see gives the citizen the right to see what is there.

Even though the citizen does not know what is on the register, he is under a duty on pain of a penalty of £1,000 to notify any inaccurate information that may be on the register—which he has never seen. He has to notify every change of address from the age of 16 onwards. Does anybody begin to appreciate the bureaucracy and form-filling that that means for students, who move from one address to another? He also has to provide the times during which he has resided in different places in the United Kingdom. For six months I am in Scotland and for six months in Wales, and then I move on somewhere else, but the times that I am in those various places have to be put on the register if it is to be accurate. Every change of name has to be registered. I do not think that that is a problem for my noble friend Lady Walmsley—should I now say, since a week ago, my noble kinsman?—as she intends to retain her own name. However, many people change their names on marriage, and will be under the penalty of £1,000 if they do not fill the form in and send it off to the register.

Forms, bureaucracy, cost—to what end? Surely a balance has to be struck. As a criminal practitioner, I do not see how the identity card will solve crime, dispose of terrorism and all the other things that are claimed for it. That is rubbish. I do not see what other benefits there will be for benefit fraud. As has already been said, in benefit fraud it is not so much identity that is an issue, but a person claiming when they are earning an income and so on. All that has to be weighed against the loss of my freedom. Why should the state know everything about me? How can I be manipulated in future—pressured to change my views, perhaps—by government departments because they have information about me that I wish to reserve to myself?

The public have given their support in opinion polls to the concept of identity cards, but I do not think that they have really grasped the problem. The problem is not the little piece of brown cardboard that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and I remember being carried around during the Second World War. It is not even a little card. It is the database behind it that tells the Government everything there is to know about you. Do the people of this country want that? Do they appreciate what the Bill is about? I give way.

Here we have a fairly typical example of the argument being put forward by those opposed to the Identity Cards Bill, one that is thorough, principled and contains detailed objections of the kind which any reasonable government should be expected to address and answer.

So what do we get from the next speaker in support of ID cards? This…

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, think that it would have been rubbish if Ian Huntley had been requested to produce an identity card before he took his job at the Soham school?

Yep, we get a fairly typical response again – one which goes “oh shit, haven’t got a proper answer. I know I’ll drag up a scare story and hope people are gullible enough to swallow it.

As people who remember the Soham case – and who doesn’t – know full well, the problem with Ian Huntley was never that there was any doubt about his identity; the problem was the information held about him by police was incomplete and innaccurate. Nothing at all, therefore, to do with identity cards, as Lord Thomas go on to note

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, that is perhaps an unfortunate example because I gather that the records were not accurate in his case. That is the problem when the information on the central database is not accurate, and that makes my case. I shall not weary your Lordships any further.

This passage perfectly encapsulates the entire debate debate – reasoned argument against, ill-conceived bullshit for. Even without understanding all the detailed objections to this bill, I’d be inclined to oppose it simply because the government’s efforts to sell the bill as ‘a good thing’ have been so abysmally poor, lacking in detailed argument and wholly reliant on generating knee-jerk reactions through liberal references to any and ever bogeyman they can possibly think of that something has to be wrong with the bill.

If ID cards were genuinely going to serve a valuable purpose, address important social concerns and raise no problems with civil liberties then the government would put up a logical, reasoned argument in their favour – which they don’t.

Even if you don’t get all the technical issues and complexities; even if you’re unsure why this is a bad thing in principle; the simple fact that the government’s entire case for ID cards is based on a series of lies, misdirections and cooked figures – both statistical and financial – which they allow to be scrutinised independently should tell you that that there is something seriously wrong here. After all, when was the last time we saw exactly the same thing?

Ah, yes. Iraq and weapons of mass destruction – and we all know how that turned out, don’t we.

Effective democracy requires a dialogue between citizens and government, yet what passes for such a dialogue, these days, all too often looks like this…

Citizen: I’ve got a couple of questions about ID cards.

Government: Sorry, I’m not going to answer them.

Citizen: Why not?

Government: Because you disagree with the answers.

Citizen: But how do you know I disagree with the answers? How do I know I disagree with the answers if you won’t answer my questions?

Government: Because you wouldn’t be asking questions if you did.

Why is this? THe only reason I can think of is that everyone in government is channelling Milo Minderbender, so remember folks, what’s good for the syndicate is good for its members, and everyone’s a member.