The insidious erosion of our civil liberties will accelerate dramatically
if the government wins the battle over identity cards
You may have noticed the vaguely menacing tone of recent government advertising
campaigns. Here is a current example: 'If you know a business that isn't registered
for tax, call the Revenue or HM Customs - no names needed.' Another says: 'Technology
has made it easier to identify benefit cheats.'
Whether the campaign is about rape, TV licences or filling in your tax form, there
is always a we-know-where-you-live edge to the message, a sense that this government
is dividing the nation into suspects and informers.
Reading the Identity Cards Bill, as it pinged between the House of Commons
and the Lords last week, I wondered about the type of campaign that will be
used to persuade us to comply with the new ID card law. Clearly, it would be
orchestrated by some efficient martinet like the Minister of State at the Home
Office, Hazel Blears. Her task will be to put the fear of God into the public
at the same time as reassuring us that the £90 cost of each card will
protect everyone from identity theft, terrorism and benefit fraud.
The ads might imagine any number of scenarios. Here is one. 'Your elderly mother
has fallen ill,' starts the commentary gravely. 'You travel from your home to
look after her. She has a chronic condition but this time, it's a bit of a crisis
and you need to pick up a prescription at the only late-night chemist in town.
Trouble is, she has mislaid her identity card and you never thought to get one.
Under the new law, the pharmacist will not be able to give you that medicine
without proper ID. So, get your card. It's for your own good - and Mum's.'
It became clear last week that the government will do anything to get this
bill through parliament, including ignoring its own manifesto pledge to make
the cards voluntary, a fact that we should remember as each of us entrusts the
49 separate pieces of personal information to a national database. By the end
of last year, the government had already spent £32m of taxpayers' money
on the scheme and, at the present, the expenditure is edging towards £100,000
a day. No surprise that Home Secretary Charles Clarke dissembles about Labour
Labour's manifesto said: 'We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data
like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially
on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports.'
It turns out that there is nothing voluntary about it. If you renew your passport,
you will be compelled to provide all the information the state requires for
its sinister data base. The Home Secretary says that the decision to apply for,
or renew, a passport is entirely a matter of individual choice; thus he maintains
that the decision to commit those personal details to the data base is a matter
of individual choice.
George Orwell would have been pleased to have invented that particular gem.
Yet this is not fiction, but the reality of 2006, and we should understand that
if the Home Secretary is prepared to mislead on the fundamental issue as to
whether something is voluntary or compulsory, we cannot possibly trust his word
on the larger issues of personal freedom and the eventual use of the ID card
Clarke has now established himself as a deceiver, even in the eyes of his party.
Labour democrats such as Kate Hoey, Diane Abbott, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Mark
Fisher all understood that the Lords' amendments of last week simply sought
to underline this concept of a voluntary scheme, which complied with the 2005
manifesto. Oddly enough, the compulsory provision of personal information to
the government database is not the greatest threat to our freedom, though it
is in itself a substantial one. The real menace comes when the ID card scheme
begins to track everyone's movements and transactions, the details of which
will kept on the database for as long as the Home Office desires.
Over the past few weeks, an anonymous email has been doing a very good job
of enlightening people on how invasive the ID card will be. 'Private businesses,'
says the writer, 'are going to be given access to the national identity register
database. If you want to apply for a job, you will have to present your card
for a swipe. If you want to apply for a London underground Oystercard or supermarket
loyalty card or driving licence, you will have to present your card.'
You will need the card when you receive prescription drugs, when you withdraw
a relatively small amount of money from a bank, check into hospital, get your
car unclamped, apply for a fishing licence, buy a round of drinks (if you need
to prove you're over 18), set up an internet account, fix a residents' parking
permit or take out insurance.
Every time that card is swiped, the central database logs the transaction so
that an accurate plot of your life is drawn. The state will know everything
that it needs to know; so will big corporations, the police, the Inland Revenue,
HM Customs, MI5 and any damned official or commercial busybody that wants access
to your life. The government and Home Office have presented this as an incidental
benefit, but it is at the heart of their purpose.
Last week, Andrew Burnham, a junior minister at the Home Office, confirmed
the anonymous email by admitting that the ID card scheme would now include chip-and-pin
technology because it would be a cheaper way of checking each person's identity.
The sophisticated technology on which this bill was sold will cost too much
to operate, with millions of checks being made every week.
That is a very important admission because the government still maintains the
fiction that the ID card is defence against identity theft and terrorism. The
7 July bombers would not have been deterred by a piece of plastic. And it is
clear that the claim about protecting your identity is also rubbish because
chip-and-pin technology has already been compromised by organised criminals.
What remains is the ceaseless monitoring of people's lives. That is what the
government is forcing on us.
Practically every week in these columns, I urge you to pay attention to the
government's theft of our liberties. I would feel a bore and an obsessive if
I hadn't pored over the ID card bill last week and read Hansard's account of
the exchanges in both houses. One of the most chilling passages in the bill
is section 13 which deals with the 'invalidity and surrender' of ID cards, which,
in effect, describes the withdrawal of a person's identity by the state. For,
without this card, it will be almost impossible to function, to exist as a citizen
in the UK. Despite the cost to you, this card will not be your property.
People keep asking me what they can do about the lurch into Labour's velvet
tyranny and I keep replying that the only way for us is to re-engage with the
politics of our country. But it is difficult. The new Conservative regime under
David Cameron has not yet found the voice to articulate the objection to the
radical changes proposed in our society. Edward Garnier, the Tory spokesman
on ID cards, did his best in the Commons last week, but we need to hear his
leader express the principled outrage that comes from conviction and unyielding
values. If we don't, we may justifiably wonder if the Conservatives are sitting
on their hands in the belief that they will eventually inherit Labour's apparatus
Outside parliament, what needs to happen is the formation of the broadest possible
front against these changes, a movement which deploys the most principled democratic
minds in the country to argue with the lazy and stupid view that if you've got
nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from Labour's attack on liberty. I
believe that will happen.