New Labour’s irrational obsessions are crystallised in its policy on national identity cards. The ID card bill seizes the commanding heights of state power not to regulate and control the multinationals but to regulate and control you and me. The net result of this legislation will be that £20 billion of public money will be paid to the usual suspects – the American IT corporations – for them to enable the regulating and controlling.
The ID card bill is mis-named. The kernel of the government’s plan is not the issue of identity cards, but the setting up for the first time of a central database, which will record extensive personal details about each and every one of us. The government has admitted that registration on this database will effectively be compulsory. The database can be accessed from across government, including the police and security services. As the government envisages identity checks being made online to the database, personal details will be made increasingly available to private companies, particularly employers, banks, airlines and lenders but in due course probably to almost every company with whom we do business.
A particularly alarming aspect of the government’s ID scheme is the so-called “audit trail”, a record of every online check made of your file, by whom and for what purpose. As the identity card bill would move us towards an ID culture, where checks to the database would be made every time we accessed public services and almost every time we engaged in any commercial transaction, the audit trail would quickly become a daily diary of our lives, of our whereabouts and of our travel plans. This “open book” could be accessed at any time by government agencies, without our permission.
It does not take a very long memory to recall the miners’ strike and how individuals were put under surveillance by government and prevented, in some cases, from travelling to rendezvous with fellow trade unionists and activists. How much easier it would be to locate, follow and harass trade unionists and political activists with all of our movements recorded by government computer.
Others may remember the Economic League and its blacklisting of trade unionists. The Economic League was funded, of course, by employers. Those same employers will be granted access to the national identity database so that they can check you out before they offer you a job. Those online checks will be recorded on the audit trail, which means the government (and the security services) will know where you work and where you are applying for work. MI5 operates largely outside Parliamentary scrutiny, and as it will have unrestricted access to the national identity register and the audit trail of your activities, it is difficult to see any safeguard against the use of this all-knowing database to monitor, harass and blacklist trade unionists and political activists.
The draconian and authoritarian nature of the ID bill is underlined by the array of new powers it grants to the Home Office and the scale of the penalties faced by those who do not meet their new, onerous obligations as British subjects. Failure to attend an appointment with a representative of the Home Office at a time and place of their choosing will mean a fine of up to £2500. Similar fines apply for failure to notify the Home Office of a change of address or any change of personal details and for failure to notify the Home Office that your identity card has been lost or damaged.
Blairite Arguments Easily Refuted
Identity cards and the identity database offer no defence against “terrorism” if the “terrorists” are not known as such. The scheme will do nothing to prevent around 95 per cent of the credit and debit card fraud which occurs, which is “card-not-present” fraud on telephone and internet purchases. The bill will not reduce to any significant degree benefits fraud, around 90 per cent of which relates not to identity but to misrepresentation of financial or personal circumstances. There is no international pressure, not from the US government nor from European governments, to introduce any biometric data on passports apart from a digital face photograph – there is no requirement, as the government suggests, to include fingerprints, eye scans or other data on passports. The government’s most absurd argument in favour, that ID cards are “convenient” and will let us get on Ryanair and Easyjet flights, does not explain the need for a £20 billion database that makes our life history accessible not only to our government but, via biometric passports, to foreign governments as well.
No other western government is seeking to set up a central, national database of information on citizens as proposed by the Home Office bill. Even Bush knows he could never sell such a scheme to the American public. In Germany, such a national register would be unconstitutional. So Blair stands alone in his intent to file, index, barcode and number his own citizens.
What are New Labour’s real motivations behind this intrusive, expensive and authoritarian identity card bill? Is it simply that they have fallen for the IT suppliers’ sales pitch (again)? Those suppliers have grown rich under this government and are set to grow richer still, at our expense. Is it that big business has persuaded Blair to build for it the ultimate marketing database, a compulsory Clubcard backed by the force of law? Or is it that government actually feels the need for an omniscient instrument of control and intimidation, in case there are some people still managing to think critically out there, despite the mind-numbing barrage of modern media output?
Around 20 Labour backbenchers are likely to rebel and vote against the bill. The task, therefore, is to persuade enough additional Labour MPs to oppose, or at least abstain, to overcome Blair’s majority of 67.
A defeat for Blair on this crucial issue is within reach. But to make it happen, maximum pressure must be applied to Labour MPs. Defeating this bill will kill one of the most authoritarian pieces of legislation ever laid before Parliament.