Britain's compulsory ID card scheme won a large majority in a Commons vote last night, with 385 MPs voting for and 93 against. The opposition consisted of all 55 Liberal Democrats, 19 Labour and nine Tories, but although the latter two figures are lower than might have been expected, 173 MPs were either absent or abstained, meaning that the numbers opposing could grow as the Bill passes through committee stage.
Short of a mass revolt by Labour's zombie army, however, the chances of Labour's massive majority being overturned in the Commons are nil.* The Zombie Army persuaded itself to vote for an illegal war on the basis of manifestly absurd claims, and has already squared voting away much of our freedoms with its conscience, so there seems little obstruction to it giving away the rest of them.
Tory opposition is more plausible, because although the party has offered support to the ID scheme, shadow home affairs spokesman David Davis has demanded changes in the Bill, and yesterday said that "if it hasn’t changed at all, I think we will make a judgment which is pretty sceptical of it." That however places the Tories in a difficult position. Davis himself, and a large section of the party, is against ID cards, but support was given first because leader Michael Howard personally favours them, and second because of the perceived need not to be seen as weak on crime, terror, security and general repression in the run-up to the election.
The timetable for the Bill is brisk, with the committee stage due to finish on 27th January, while there are currently suggestions that Tony Blair might call a snap general election in February. Presuming that the Government has negligible concern over whether or not the scheme works, is feasible or is effective, but is entirely concerned about winning the election at any price (on balance, we think these are reasonable presumptions), then the plan will be to force the Tories into the position of a loud awkward squad. So no concessions, the possibility of an immediate election left dangling, and Howard facing an embarrassing climb-down or fissure in his own party. Although there will be no doubt be intelligent contributions by MPs who've actually read and understood the Bill at this stage, and the Liberals at least will form a coherent opposition, the greatest chances of derailment lie in the House of Lords.
An early election would however destroy what chances the Bill has of getting onto the statute book before the campaign, and produce more time for public opinion to turn against it. This, as we are regularly told by optimistic campaigners (and Peter Lilly MP just last night), is what happened in Australia, and although survey results do regularly produce a bottom line of a public that will at least accept ID cards, a closer reading makes it clear that there are many things about the scheme they dislike (cost, having to tell the Government when you move house, being fined for not telling the Government, etc), and many more things they'd dislike if they only knew about it.
The Government's arguments yesterday were essentially more of the same, with Charles Clarke largely repeating his spin from yesterday's Times. Here he trotted out the Government's prized 'fact' that 30 per cent of terrorists use false IDs, and the other one that identity fraud costs the UK £1.3 billion a year. It turns out that the Home Office declines to go into detail on what the 30 per cent consists of for 'security reasons', so they're just plain not going to tell us how few terror incidents in the UK have been perpetrated by people who would actually have had UK ID cards (hint: the Provisional IRA wouldn't, because they could just be Irish). The Home Office does however confess that ID-related benefit fraud amounts to £50 million a year, and it's obvious that the £1.3 billion isn't addressed by the ID scheme because (as it's currently presented) it doesn't have the slightest effect on the current major sources of identity fraud (e.g. cardholder not present, Internet transactions).
Peter Lilly came up with a useful piece of number-crunching on benefit fraud, noting that the cost of terminals to the Department of Work and Pensions would be at least £1 billion, in order to save that £50 million. Other financial 'benefits' of the scheme are even more difficult to identify, and given that favourable numbers would have been published in the Bill's Regulatory Impact Assessment if the Government actually had any, it seems pretty clear it doesn't.
Enhancing his novel argument that identity cards are in fact a wondrous benefit and a "profoundly civil libertarian measure", Clarke yesterday burbled: "Opening a bank account, going abroad on holiday, claiming a benefit, buying goods on credit, renting a video - the possession of a clear, unequivocal and unique form of identity will offer significant benefits of a variety of different types."
Good, isn't it? Now, consider what happens when you use your ID card for each of these things. At each stage, your identity is checked and your whereabouts and doings logged in the audit trail that exists to 'protect your privacy'. This audit trail will not of course be available to anyone bar your good self and the police and security services and all of the other agencies the Government proposes to allow to access it. In enthusing about the scheme and its possibilities, Clarke is really telling us what's profoundly wrong about it, and why it should be stopped.
We'll return to the debate later, when we've had a chance to go through the proceedings in more detail. ®
* We were taken with a report in yesterday's Guardian citing research that showed the Zombie Army, "usually caricatured as compliant stooges terrified of defying the whip, are turning on the government in unprecedented numbers." Claimed researcher Philip Cowley: "It is astonishing that Lord Butler got it so wrong. The real story is the growing independence and quality of British MPs." As he can apparently see things that we cannot, we can only gasp at the wisdom of Mr Cowley.