The Bow Group Tory think tank has published a critique of the ID scheme by former Minister Peter Lilley MP. Lilley, who has been active in opposition to the scheme in Parliament, echoes Privacy International's suggestion that the ID card could become the Labour Party's poll tax, and the report provides a succinct primer to the flaws of the scheme. But it's Lilley's parliamentary and ministerial experience that makes the report particularly interesting.
He notes that in opposition (in 1995) one Tony Blair said: "Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on compulsory ID cards as the Tory Right demand, let that money provide thousands more police officers on the beat in our local communities", which is of course just slightly different from the current line. Lilley contends that "his change of heart is entirely cynical. It reflects government by focus group. The focus groups showed that the public felt the government had failed on crime and immigration; the Conservatives were trusted to do better; and Michael Howard was a successful Home Secretary who reduced both crime and immigration. Focus groups also showed that the public believed ID cards would help tackle both problems. So Blair is pressing ahead with ID cards to create the impression that he is being tough on crime and immigration. Having adopted the idea cynically, the government embraced them wholeheartedly because ID cards fit squarely within the New Labour mould. They have the smack of modernity – witness Ministers' talk of biometrics, smart cards and new technology; they are nakedly populist; they make Britain more like our European neighbours, many of whom have identity card schemes of one sort or another; and they reflect New Labour's desire to nanny and control us."
Which is an argument, certainly. Lilley the politician also notes a telling signpost in the ID Bill's Regulatory Impact Assessment, which says: "The government wants to encourage lawful migration into the country... In sustaining and perhaps increasing current levels of lawful migration, it is important to retain the confidence of the resident population". The assessment says ID cards will help achieve this by convincing people "that immigration controls will not be abused".
"In other words," says Lilley, "if the government mounts a high profile campaign against 'abuse of immigration controls' the public will not realise that it is actually 'encouraging' and 'increasing' the present unprecedented level of immigration."
Perception management of this sort chimes with David Blunkett's explanation of the need to deal with perception of threat, as opposed to reality, here (where you'll also see the first sighting of ASBOs for terror suspects, which are now likely to be deployed as Clarke control orders for Belmarsh prisoners), and with his explanation of pre-emptive measures as a response to fear. And also, of course, with the news that the Home Office is actively trying to measure fear levels. So there's ample support for Lilley's pitch that the ID scheme is just a hugely expensive exercise in mass perception management, whether or not you agree with him that immigration levels should be reduced.
Lilley makes several other useful points, notably that asylum seekers have had biometric ID cards anyway since 2002, and that detected illegal immigrants would simply have to claim asylum in order to get one. The Government's lack of success in actually removing many illegal immigrants from the country, says Lilley, means that in these circumstances most of them can stay indefinitely. Coincidentally, in a parliamentary answer a few days ago Immigration Minister Des Browne explained the Government's failure to achieve its 30,000 removals target (10,780 were achieved in 2002) thus: "The 30,000 removals target was set to drive up performance and to achieve a real step change in the number of failed asylum seekers being removed. We have since accepted that it was not achievable." Which does sound a bit like an admission that it was perception management and was never expected to be achieved in the first place.
The Bow Group site doesn't yet have a copy of the full report, but it will no doubt be posted there in the near future.
ID cards extra: The Portuguese Government is to introduce an electronic ID card in order to tackle forgery of its existing cards. Fakes Portuguese cards, it has emerged, have been widely used by Brazilian illegal immigrants in order to work in the UK. There is as yet no introduction date, so at around €75 the current fakes remain an excellent deal for the wannabe European citizen. France meanwhile has launched a public debate on its proposed electronic ID card, INES (identité nationale électronique sécurisée). The French card is also being pitched as a secure successor to the current card, but France is majoring on its use as a means of enabling secure electronic ID from the citizen's point of view (i.e. it helps you, as opposed to your needing to have it in order to get stuff from the Government). There's a very readable (if you read French) consultation document here, and a live citizen's discussion forum with a credible level of activity (how different from the sites of our own dear Home Office) here. ®
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