Henry Porter has caught up with the Isle of Wight ferry story, which I looked at here the other day. On his CIF blog he asks, "At what stage do we say to the government, Enough, this is our information, not yours"?
He's not alone in his reaction. As might be expected, the story that the government wants to require ID checks of anyone travelling on ferries to and from places such as the Isle of Wight or the Western Isles went down badly with the people most affected. The proposal would damage tourism and be greatly resented by locals who have no other means of getting on and off the island. It would, in effect, turn the Isle of Wight into a huge open prison. The island's MP, Andrew Turner, described it as "plainly daft":
If a Home Office spokesman did, originally, say such a thing, then he clearly needs his head examining...You can drive from John O’Groats to Lands End without needing any ID – why should the Island be singled out simply because you need a ferry to reach us?
He added that he had written to Jacqui Smith asking her how much terrorism and organised crime there was on the Isle of Wight.
However daft it may sound, the original story (by Jason Lewis in the Mail on Sunday) was confirmed in the local press the following day.
The Southern Daily Echo carried a jokey, light-hearted report that managed to repeat unquestioningly the government line about terrorism:
DON’T forget your passport!
Ferry passengers travelling to the Isle of Wight could soon have to show identity papers under a new anti-terrorist crackdown. The Government’s latest plan would also see passengers’ personal data, including name, date of birth, home address and travel plans, passed to the police whenever a ticket booking is made.
A Home Office spokesman told the Daily Echo that Government officials were considering introducing the anti-terror powers under the Police and Justice Act 2006....However, the spokesman said new legislation would have to be passed before police could begin to collect people’s personal data and travel plan details.
This isn't actually true: no new legislation would be needed, merely an executive order "laid before the House". Theoretically, it could be challenged or overturned by MPs but in practice that never happens.
The Echo's reporter spoke to one of the ferry companies, who seemed worryingly enthusiastic about doing the government's bidding:
Kerry Jackson, marketing manager for Wightlink, which runs services between Lymington and Yarmouth, said: We have not seen any firm guidance from the Government yet but we will obviously comply with whatever is implemented in order to ensure the safety of our passengers.
They really have drunk the Kool-Aid, these people, haven't they? "Safety of our passengers"?
A few days later, and the picture seems to have changed somewhat. The Isle of Wight County Press reports that the claims "have been rubbished by the Home Office":
A storm of protest greeted Sunday's reports that people would need their passports.
It led to a flood of e-mails and telephone calls from residents, outraged that ferry company booking clerks would record personal data that would then be made available to police.
The Mail on Sunday quoted a Home Office spokesman as saying photo ID would be needed on Isle of Wight ferry journeys.
But on Tuesday a Home Office spokesman said: This would not include the Isle of Wight. Our only intention, at this time, is to introduce this for routes between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; and this would be subject to prior public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.
The government is considering such an extension to allow for the collection of travel information on air and sea routes which have been identified by the security and intelligence agencies and law enforcement as a risk in terrorist and serious organised crime terms.
That sounds like a climb-down to me. Despite the apparent denial, there's no doubt that the Home Office were seriously considering the proposal. I thought initially that the story might have been either a kite-flying exercise (with the MoS used as the Home Office's stooge) or a misunderstanding, with an under-briefed spokesman put on the spot by the Mail's reporter. Neither seems to be the case. Instead, it would appear that the government has been taken aback by the strength of opposition that greeted the story's appearance.
There are also a couple of loopholes. First is the phrase "at this time" which, of course, implies a future intention. Then there's the reference to routes that have been "identified as a risk". In relation to a small holiday island a few minutes' ferry-ride off the south coast terrorism would seem to be an almost laughably specious justification. But, as I have learned, that hasn't stopped the career paranoics of the security service speculating about Al Qaeda training camps being set up there. Peshawar on Solent, perhaps. In their baroque imaginings, potential terrorists may slip on- and offshore, evading detection by laying low in out-of-the-way islands, perhaps like the Druids of Angelsey who so alarmed the Romans.
Nevertheless, it would seem that the proposal is off the agenda so far as the Isle of Wight is concerned, at least for the time being. They wanted to do it, they planned to do it, they probably hoped that no-one would notice until it was too late. Happily, the Mail on Sunday did notice, and public disquiet did the rest. The game's not up quite yet.