ID Cards

Once again we’re threatened with the introduction of ID cards.  An English friend in Spain tells me that a Spanish identity card “doesn’t actually give you rights or permission to do anything; it just proves your identity and nothing more.”  Very different in that case from the kind of UK card now being actively campaigned for by Messrs Blunkett and Blair:  indeed, they actually want to call it an “entitlement card”, a memorably Orwellian euphemism.  Without producing one, people won’t be able to get their state benefits even if otherwise entitled to them.  In practice all sorts of busybody will undoubtedly demand to see the card before providing a service.  The objection to them rests mainly on the grounds that the card’s chip, in addition to containing biometric data such as a photograph of the holder’s iris or fingerprint, will contain a raft of other information, including copious data from the driving licence, tax and criminal records, national insurance and NHS records, and any security information.  There’s a genuine fear that all this information will be accessible to any arm of government, so that the police will be able to see your tax records and the tax authorities will be able to see your criminal and pension records, and so on, thus demolishing the cardinal principle that all information on citizens should be available only to those by or for whom it has been recorded and to no-one else.  It’s also doubtful whether the card holder will be allowed to view the information in his chip to check its accuracy.

Another objection, as mentioned before in Ephems, is that the card is designed among other things to “stop” people pretending to be someone other than who they are.  But if people pretend to be someone else for purely personal reasons which don’t entail any criminal offence (such as obtaining money under false pretences), why on earth shouldn’t they?  If I want to stay at a hotel with a young lady (or indeed an old one) who isn’t my wife, and we want to check in as Mr & Mrs Charlie Chaplin, why should the state stop us, by giving the hotel the ability to demand to see our ID cards with our real names?  If I want to go on holiday and assume a different name and character – or even gender, although as it happens that doesn’t appeal to me — to escape from a painful reality or just to amuse myself, what business is that of the Home Secretary or the local police?

Advocates of the scheme are already dragging out that hoary old justification for every kind of state intrusion into our lives that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."  But lots of people have something to hide, and why should they be prevented from hiding it, so long as they don’t hide it in the streets and frighten the horses?

Few people apart from illegal immigrants and crooks have any problem over establishing their identity when necessary, especially now that the new driving licences have photographs, and passports slip easily into pocket or handbag, and most people have credit and debit and store cards and utility bills.  Very little benefit fraud depends on false identity and the police acknowledge that professional crooks would have little difficulty in forging or stealing and adapting cards anyway.  The legal obligation to have (and at some point therefore to be able to produce) a card would provide another golden opportunity for the harassment by cops and bureaucrats of the young, ethnic minorities, the indolent or stupid, the careless, the old, and other undesirables.  Information is power, and power unnecessarily put in the hands of state authority is invariably going to be abused sooner or later.   

Several members of the Cabinet seem to be actively opposed to David Blunkett’s scheme.  But Tony Blair has spoken publicly in support of it[1], so that’s probably the end of the argument.  Mercifully it will take so long to set up, with hordes of people refusing to allow their irises to be photographed or their finger-prints taken, and refusing to pay the £40 a head ID card tax (yes, the Treasury have reportedly ruled that it will be recorded as a tax and will therefore count towards the tax level statistics which are a major battleground between the parties), that by the time it’s up and running, most of us older fellas will be dead.

PS:  the Independent newspaper has now reported that the Prime Minister has decided to shelve the whole scheme in the face of strong opposition from within the Cabinet.  But this is not confirmed by Mr Blunkett, who says he still hopes to secure agreement to his proposals.

[1]: “And in a world of mass migration, with cheaper air travel, and all the problems of fraud, it makes sense to ask whether now in the early 21st century identity cards are no longer an affront to civil liberties but may be the way of protecting them.”  Tony Blair, Speech at Labour Party Conference, 30 September 2003 .