The Government’s Identity Crisis

I had a strange phone call some years ago; an unknown person from the Social Security office in Chelmsford rang me at work to inform me that someone had been seen getting out of my car near their offices, and could I please explain this? It took a while before the penny dropped – the person they had seen was me. My presence in Victoria Street that day was quite innocent – I had been taking a computer to a nearby shop for repair. But someone evidently thought I might have been claiming benefit fraudulently, and it took quite a bit of explaining on my part before they were satisfied. Eventually they rang off (with no apology). I assume they rang the computer shop to check my story.

For several days after that call I felt a little spooked. Using my car registration number, a government official had been able to find out who I was and who I worked for, and how to get in touch with me by phone. It was an eerie feeling – the thought that I had been under surveillance, that someone had been investigating me without my knowledge.

I am reminded of this experience every time the issue of identity cards comes up. “Innocent people will have nothing to fear,” is the official mantra; I’m sorry, I don’t believe it. Think, for a moment, of the power that would rest in the hands of government officials if they had access not only to my car registration number and information about my employment, but also to my bank details, my health record, fingerprint information, my DNA profile …

The problem is that without a written constitution, UK citizens have no fundamental protection against the gradual erosion of their civil liberties.

Don’t forget, the government has only recently been persuaded to drop their controversial email snooping plans. Officials from seven Government departments, as well as the police, would have been empowered to obtain details of our phone calls, our emails, websites we have visited and – scarily – all mobile phone location data which could reveal our whereabouts at any given time within a few hundred metres. No court order necessary.

David Blunkett admitted he blundered over his ‘snooper’s charter’; but what really worries me is not that he made a mistake, but that his department totally failed to predict the huge opposition to his plans. Why didn’t they see this antagonism coming? Because they don’t understand how much we value our freedom and privacy. And having seen the government retreat on that front, the following week we are faced with new threats to our civil liberties.

Note that the proposed card would not be an identity card – it would be an ‘entitlement card’. I object to that, as well. Not so much because it is deceitful, but rather because of the suggestion that I am entitled to health care because the government has graciously allowed me to have a card. I’m so sorry, Mr Blunkett: I’m entitled to health care because I am a British citizen and I pay my taxes. And the same applies to my children’s education and my expectation that the police will come to my aid if I am mugged.

Every time ID cards are proposed, there is a different justification: illegal working, identity theft, benefit fraud, terrorism, illegal immigration. But organised criminals can always get forgeries. Creating new ID cards will create a new business opportunity for the criminal classes – the supply of fake ID cards.

Mr Blunkett turns to the police for support – but they don’t want ID cards, as they fear they will sour relations with the public. And in any case, the police have made it clear that they rarely have problems identifying suspects, only in catching them and finding the evidence to convict them.

The Treasury too is thought to be sceptical about the whole idea, baulking at the cost of introducing the card, which has been put at anything up to £1 billion. I would suggest that if Mr Blunkett can’t think of anything better to spend £1 billion on, he should ask his fellow secretaries of state for education or health if they have any ideas. Or perhaps he could use the money to recruit more police officers.

I also have doubts about the technology. I’m no technophobe – I am writing this article on my computer, and will email it to the editor – but I have grave concerns about the ability of the government to manage such a complex system. Remember the problems we have already seen with attempts to computerise the social security system – not to mention the passport office fiasco.

Passports bring me back to where I started. “We carry all sorts of cards already,” runs the argument, “so what difference would another card make?” Well, there is a difference between my carrying credit cards that I choose to carry and an ID card that the state says I must carry: the difference between being compelled and volunteering, being a citizen and being a subject.

This distinction seems obvious to most of us – but apparently not to a government which, as I write, is proposing drastic reforms of our criminal justice system. Some of these reforms seem quite sensible. Some are a threat to fundamental principles of justice, and Liberal Democrats will fight them all the way. As Simon Hughes says, “Reform of the criminal justice system is as much about getting the existing system to work as it is about changing it. Greater efficiency can be achieved without mounting attack after attack on civil liberties.”