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Wednesday, March 29, 2006 

The ID cards compromise which isn't.

The compromise reached between the House of Lords and the government today over the ID cards bill has its heart in the right place, but it misses the point of why so many are actually opposed to the scheme in its entirety.

Under the new plans, accepted by Home Office minister Baroness Scotland of Asthal, anyone applying for a passport before January 2010 can opt out of having an ID card.

The move follows months of wrangling between the Lords and Commons on this issue with peers rejecting "compulsion by stealth" five times.

Earlier today MPs had overturned the latest Lords amendment but the home secretary, Charles Clarke, indicated he was prepared to accept a "workable compromise".

The compromise was backed by 287 to 60, a majority of 227, with only the Liberal Democrats still opposing it.

Home Office minister Andy Burnham said in a statement: "I am delighted that we have been able to give our backing to an amendment tabled by the cross-bencher Lord Armstrong.

"The amendment preserves the integrity of the national identity register by ensuring that everyone who applies for or renews a passport or other designated document has their biometric information and other identity details placed on the register.

"However, it also goes towards meeting the concerns of those who have argued that the card itself should not be compulsory at this stage by allowing those who apply for or renew their passport before 1 January 2010 to opt-out of being issued the ID card itself, even though their identity details will be entered onto the register."

First of all, the Lords who stood up to the government over this should be thanked for their dedication in holding it to account. 5 rounds of "parliamentary ping-pong" is no mean feat. Without them we wouldn't have even got this slight compromise.

Nevertheless, the argument has never simply been opposition to a piece of plastic which we carry around. The argument has been about the database behind it, how much of our information is held on it, the costs of the scheme and whether it will actually work. It has also been about whether it will become mandatory to carry it as well as whether it can be demanded to prove who you are, but those have always been lesser concerns. If you now renew your passport, your "biometric information" will be taken, which means both your fingerprints and photographs of your irises will be required. In addition, you will have to give numerous pieces of personal information (the bill sets out 50 categories of registerable facts), all of which will now be entered on a national database which numerous layers of government will have access to. This compromise does to a certain extent meet the Labour manifesto pledge that they would introduce a "voluntary" scheme, but there is nothing voluntary about giving personal information about yourself to the government which they will keep for their own use, when its only use should be on a passport that intends to prove who you are so you can travel.

The typical refrain is that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Every single person has something that they are not proud of, that they are embarrassed about. If they didn't, they wouldn't be human. It's a false argument that believes the government's intentions are entirely pure; that if you are unwilling to give them your personal details that you must be guilty of something.

What the government scheme is going towards is permanent surveillance of the person, with a database behind it, constantly updated, most likely eventually with someone's whereabouts from day to day, thanks to the largest amount of CCTV cameras in a single nation on the face of the planet. That this database will get things wrong and that as a result people may be falsely accused is incredibly likely. After all the IT fiascoes of this government, you would have thought they would have learned that databases are a disaster waiting to happen. They haven't, and the dedication this government has shown to pushing through this bill, which would have made the scheme compulsory in violation of the manifesto after last year (they're breaking their promises earlier and earlier now, it took a few years to break the one not to bring in top-up fees) shows just how intent they are on keeping tabs on everyone. This is without even getting into the cost, which is likely to hugely spiral, and will then be offset by raising the amount you'll have to pay for the card. (£93 is the estimate at the moment for a passport and card.) Then you have the difficulties surrounding biometrics, which for some people simply refuse to work, as their irises currently aren't able to be recognised. The control freakery which began with the media is becoming deeply personal.

The government has instead spent its time saying how much they will solve identity fraud, without explaining how or countering the fact that almost as soon as they come out they will most likely be forged, that benefit fraud and otherwise will magically disappear overnight thanks to the scheme, and that terrorism will be made less likely, even though it didn't stop the Madrid bombers and it wouldn't have stopped the 7/7 bombers. The scheme should be seen as the worst of this government's illiberal excesses, even more onerous and oppressive than attempting to lock up terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge, or locking up non-British citizens suspected of terrorism indefinitely. At the same time Labour demands that the public learn to "respect" each other, while it denies it to its own critical supporters. Blair carries on, apparently intent on staying on to "fix" the NHS before he'll consider stepping down. Even the Guardian has finally got it, after years of mild criticism: He must go, and now.

Related post: Hot Water at Bloggerheads.

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