Tuesday, 12 October 2010

No2ID: Party on?

No2ID are having a party later this month to celebrate their success in getting rid of ID cards. As well, you may think, they might. During the Commons debate which saw Labour's flagship scheme consigned to the dustbin, Damian Green saluted them as "one of the most successful pressure groups in history". Led brilliantly by Phil Booth and Guy Herbert, No2ID kept the subject of ID cards in the public arena long after the passage of the 2006 Act should have made it a fait accompli. Opposition to the scheme united natural political enemies to such an extent that the group might even claim to have played Cupid to the present Coalition.

When first proposed, ID cards and their accompanying mass database were touted almost as a solution to all the ills and inconveniences of modern life. They would defeat benefit fraud, frustrate illegal immigration, stop terrorists, help the police and "entitle" you to public services that you had previously only been able to access by telling people who you were. Or sometimes not even that. More than that, thanks to the wonders of IT they would link every part of your life together, meaning you would never have to look out that piece of paper or reference number again. And if that meant that some computer somewhere knew every last detail of your life - well, only a few million civil servants and contractors working for the state would be able to access the database, and there would be "safeguards" and procedures to prevent leaks and misuse of information, and as we all know computer systems never fail and dishonest or incompetent people never work for the government anyway, so what's there to worry about? You can trust Big Brother.

By the time the scheme was finally killed off, so little of the original vision remained that the termination was almost, but not quite, symbolic. No2ID deserves the credit for some of that. But if ID cards were not the threat they had been, the threat has not gone away. Other costly, intrusive schemes with potential to go horribly wrong survive. The danger, indeed, is that this is precisely why the ID card scheme proved so easy to axe.

The Coalition may have fulfilled this one, straightforward pledge, but in other areas evidence of backtracking is starting to pile up. A few examples:

1) The 2011 census, described a few months ago by Conservative spokesman Nick Hurd as "intrusive and bloated" is going ahead virtually unchanged in March. The government's excuse is that it was too late to stop it or to make substantial alterations. So all of us will be legally obliged (on pain of a £1000 fine) to spend the better part of an evening telling the government our business. Fuel Injected Moose has full details of the horror to come (and whether evasion is a viable option); Cranmer has been taking a closer look at some of the questions.

2) Another scheme the Conservative opposition had in its sights, the centralised database holding the Summary Care Records of almost all patients, is also proceeding as planned despite growing concerns about its accuracy and usefulness. According to Tony Collins, the decision is "a testimony to the influence of civil servants at NHS Connecting for Health and the Department of Health who have strongly advocated the continuance of the programme" and pays no heed to an independent and highly critical report from UCL earlier this year which found that many hospital doctors were distrustful of the information contained therein. The only concession is that it will be made slightly easier to opt out (as I did). Phil Booth accuses the Coalition of having "broken its promise on medical confidentiality" and "capitulating to the bureaucrats on a system known to be unsafe". As he adds, it shows who's really in charge.

3) The "vetting and barring" scheme run by the Independent Safeguarding Authority, and which would potentially cover almost half the adult population (anyone with any kind of access to children or "vulnerable adults"), is under review but seems likely to survive in some form. This is in many ways the most frightening, Orwellian scheme of all, treating all adults as guilty until proven innocent, enshrining gossip and hearsay in a quasi-judicial process that gives civil servants power to destroy careers at the stroke of a pen, and fatally undermining both data protection laws and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.

Jane Fae has a good discussion of the current state of play. It seems that the Coalition intends to make amendments, but it's far from clear how far they will actually go. As she points out, the "cultural imperative towards fearfulness, so assiduously fostered by New Labour, is still there". Even well-intentioned politicians are caught up in it. It's highly unlikely that the ISA would have stopped Ian Huntley, who was not employed at his victims' school, although it was in response to the Soham murders that the Labour government adopted the scheme. But if the scheme is dropped or seriously diluted, and there is (as there inevitably will be) another ghastly, unpredictable crime against a child, the Opposition would undoubtedly then blame the government for "letting children down".

4) The new government fully shares its predecessor's strange obsession with curbing teenage drinking - despite the fact that teenagers have never drunk less alcohol. Imposing ever more draconian penalties on stores found to be supplying underage drinkers has created a nightmare situation in which almost anyone under 30 is routinely asked for ID - often after buying alcohol legally and without hassle for years - and even pensioners find themselves questioned by doltish shop assistants. Things look likely to get even worse. Getting rid of ID cards is one thing. Getting away from the ID culture, in which impertinent and superfluous demands to prove one's existence punctuate daily life, will be another thing entirely.

I'm sure the No2ID party will be a call to arms as well as a celebration. It's certainly no time for complacency.