Thursday, 25 September 2008

Identity Crisis

It was rather a forlorn-looking Jacqui Smith who presided over today's low-key unveiling of the new ID card. The official press release claimed that the scheme was "building momentum" and Smith rattled off the well-worn list of problems the cards will allegedly solve: crime, terrorism, identity fraud and so on. She even claimed that it would "crack down on those trying to abuse positions of trust". That's usually code for paedophiles. They must be really desperate. Invoking child protection is a sure sign of a politician running out of arguments.

In any case today's launch was something of a fraud. The card Smith waved around might look like the planned national ID card, but it's really just a revamping of the existing scheme of residence permits. It has nothing to do with the plans for a national identity register. It will only effect foreign workers, students and marriage partners. The Home Secretary managed to enunciate the words "foreign nationals" with enough of a sneer to underline the message that they will only apply to immigrant scum anyway. Something of a hostage to fortune, this. Today's launch is widely seen as part of a softening up exercise for the wider population, but if people come to see the cards as something designed to keep a watch on those untrustworthy foreigners they may be seen as even more of an imposition on freeborn British men and women.

The scheme for a comprehensive system, based on an Orwellian National Register, looks to be in deep trouble anyway, with technical problems, delays, losses of confidential information, ever-rising costs and public indifference, if not yet widespread horror. Most importantly, of course, the Conservatives are pledged to scrap the scheme if (when) they come to power. The near certainty (at least at the moment) of a Conservative victory is a powerful incentive to private companies not to invest too many resources in a scheme that will probably be aborted anyway. At a fringe meeting at the Labour conference a few ago, home office minister Meg Hillier tried to claim that the Tories would find it difficult to dismantle. "There isn't an easy way to unpick this scheme," she claimed. It's far from certain, though, that there will be that much for the Conservatives to undo.

Today Jacqui Smith clarified the planned timetable, and it was much as expected: first foreign nationals, then airport workers, then students, then passport applicants. That will not come until 2011 at the earliest (and probably 2012), well beyond the latest date for the next election. Originally, it was supposed to be 2008. The interim stages are just as unlikely to go smoothly.

According to the Telegraph, there is "deadlock" in talks between the Government, airlines and unions over the introduction of the cards. Robert Siddall, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, was quoted as expressing widespread fears that airport staff were being treated as guinea pigs. The British Airline Pilots Association has threatened legal action, and unions representing other airport workers are equally unimpressed. Said Siddall, "At the moment the government plan to force the ID cards on the industry is not going anywhere, that's for sure," he said. "You cannot run a pilot scheme in a sector where so many parts of it are opposed to it."

The claim that these workers need to be registered with a national database is hollow in any case, with even Jacqui Smith conceding today that airport staff already face more security checks than those that would be required for the national scheme. If this proposal isn't dropped altogether, it will be watered down into something case-specific. We'll be told instead that the scheme for airport workers represents a successful demonstation of what a national ID card scheme "would be like". And then we'll here no more.

As for the students, last month the Times reported widespread opposition to ID cards. The NUS, fearing that it would soon become in effect compulsory, has signalled that it would not co-operate. A website set up by the government to enthuse young people with love of Big Brother instead attracted overwhelmingly negative comments. According to the report, "anyone browsing the discussions on the site would be hard pushed to find a single positive comment, with contributors branding the controversial scheme as creepy, dirty and illegal and the website itself as an 'online propaganda machine'. "

The other day Meg Hillier claimed that the ID cards were "full steam ahead". "In fact the prime minister wanted me to do it quicker than it was possible," she added. I bet he did. He knows he's not long for the political world. And though it was originally Blair's baby, the ID scheme would be a fitting monument to Brown's doctrine of statist control. Clumsy, intrusive, overpriced, over-elaborate, unclear in purpose and ultimately unworkable, they have already become an irrelevance. At least, I hope so.

2 comments:

valdemar said...

I am a feeble, timid sort of chap. (Whaddya mean, you guessed?) Anyway, I repeatedly told friends that I would burn my ID card or application form in public if the govt tried to force it on me. Imagine my relief to see the whole thing looking like a cake in the rain. But if push came to shove I think I'd do it. Probably. If there were a lot of braver, younger people doing it too.

karlt said...

I'm curious as to what supporting documentation I would need to get an ID card. My passport? Driving license? Gas bill? The ID card is exactly as reliable as whatever documents one has to supply in order to be issued with one. Therefore, for law abiding, none goose booing chaps like myself, the ID card (and more importantly my entry in the register will be accurate. But what about those who can lay their hands on forged supporting documents?