So, as you will have noticed, unless you've been on holiday for the past few weeks or something, we have a new Labour government; depending on who you believe, it may even be a New Labour government. This government has, in the words of Geoff Hoon, been ``elected by a substantial majority in the country'', which is what in English we used to call a `minority', and that means that they're now in a position to ``[entrench] progressive politics'' in this country, which is what in English we used to call `invading things and abolishing our civil liberties'.
Now, exactly what the Labour government plan to do is up to them; their immediate plans will be announced in the Queen's Speech next week, but until then we don't know precisely what they're plotting. However, it's probably safe to say that the Prime Minister wouldn't have decided to make Andy Burnham MP a Parliamentary Under Secretary with particular responsibility for ID cards unless he plans to have another go at forcing bloody ID cards on us again.
Burnham, whom regular readers will have met here before, has such enthusiasm for ID cards that he advocates making them compulsory-to-carry; without carrying ID cards at all times, he argues, it would be impossible to ``unlock the full benefits of identity cards in fighting crime''. Benefits like, uh, sabotaging the witness-protection programme. Idiot.
Anyway, that means that the ID Cards Bill will very probably be back from the dead in this session of Parliament. The Government didn't take any notice of the responses to the consultation on ID cards or the recommendations of the Commons committee on the Bill last time round, so it's unlikely to make any substantive changes to the previous version of the Bill despite getting a fairly serious kicking from the electorate and being returned to power with the support of only a fifth of the population.
The House of Lords, which is likely to be fairly unreceptive to the Bill, cannot block it because, as Hoon says, it is a Labour manifesto commitment; under the 1945 Salisbury Convention, the Lords can't now kill it off. Of course, if the Government are minded to bring in ID cards legislation which isn't as described in their manifesto, the Lords can amend it until it is. Here is what the Labour Party have threatened us with: (from their manifesto, page 52)
- the facility to search for individuals' records in the Register by their biometrics (perhaps the Lords would have to be a little bit autistic to throw that out, but a card carrying a signed statement of the holder's biometric details could actually be somewhat useful under certain circumstances and much less dangerous; the manifesto statement doesn't require that the Register be keyed by iris code, etc.);
- more generally, the particular and extensive list of information which would be stored in each individual's record in the Register, and the power of the Home Secretary to alter this by secondary legislation;
- the compulsion of certain groups of people, except for certain visitors to the country, as above, to register;
- the power of the Home Secretary to prevent people from using the NHS or other public services to which they are entitled unless they register;
- the `audit trail', in which would be recorded every access to the Register or use of a card -- for instance, whenever a cardholder visits their GP or uses any other public service, or (in certain government fantasies) buys anything costing more than £200 -- and which would be accessible to many officials in the Home Office and the security services, but secret from the cardholder;
- more generally, access by parties other than the cardholder to information on the card or the Register;
- the proposed criminal offences and penalties associated with the card, for instance the power to jail for ten years anybody who has `false ID', such as that which teenagers use to buy beer;
- the requirement for victims to pay for the card out of their own pocket; and
- any association between biometric passports and ID cards, apart from the coincidental one in the manifesto.
The reasons why the Labour party are pursuing this scheme are, as ever, unclear. It's big, it's shiny, it's high-tech, it's expensive: a perfect new Labour scheme, some argue. Others suppose that the Home Office have been reading too much stuff from MI5 and have become terrified of terrorism; ID cards, incongruously, are imagined to be the solution. On a different tack, this perceptive article from law firm Pinsent Masons points out that,
Details of an ID Card Gateway Review, published on the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) website as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request last month, reveals that the wider ``public service'' use of the ID Card database has been an objective of Government for two years. The OGC Review, dated June 2003, states that the ID Card database ``could provide a more efficient basis for administering public services by avoiding the need for people to provide the same personal information time and again to a range of public services''.
- the Labour Party has promised to make the public services work better without spending much more money on them; and
- they promise to achieve this by `efficiency savings'; but
- they don't know how to do that (not surprising: nobody else does either); however
- somebody has told them that, magically, it can be effected using computers; and
- somebody else -- very probably a firm of consultants which specialises in building enormous databases at enormous cost -- has told them that to do that they would need to have a giant database of everyone in the country.
It's rubbish, obviously. There's no reason to suppose that `the need for people to provide the same personal information time and again to a range of public services' seriously contributes to the cost of providing those services, or even to the hassle of using them. You might argue that building one central database which all the local database -- at GPs' surgeries, hospitals, benefit offices, etc. -- can refer to might save money, but actually linking all those disparate databases to another new database will probably make them more expensive to run and will certainly cost a lot of money to set up.
If this is truly what they're based on, I expect Labour's attempts to make the public services `more efficient' will be a complete disaster -- mostly of the `pissing money down the drain' variety, rather than the `killing people by accident' variety, though I wouldn't rule out the latter completely.
Anyway, if we believe this theory of What The ID Cards Scheme Is For, we should expect Labour to cling to it through thick and thin, because they believe that their credibility -- such as it is -- is predicated on efficiency-saving reform of the public services, and that those efficiency savings mean forcing everybody to have an ID card and have all their personal details and all their comings and goings recorded in the National Identity Register. Idiots.
Here is an optimistic possible scenario (``never make predictions, especially about the future''): Labour gets the Bill through the Commons; the Lords, then, by amendments render it relatively inoffensive but impotent for its -- unstated in the Labour manifesto -- true purpose. Labour resolves to force it through under the Parliament Act, but by the time they've gone through all the relevant Parliamentary hoops, their government has dissolved into 1995 John-Major-style chaos (or the economy is going down the pan or they're too busy fighting a war in Iran or whatever), and they are left unable to get the Commons to approve the Bill; the idea is dead -- for a few more years, anyway.
We will legislate to place reasonable limits on the time bills spend in the second chamber -- no longer than 60 sitting days for most bills.
which I interpret to mean that they intend to further amend the Parliament Act to reduce the extent of the delay the Lords may impose from one year to much less than that. I don't suppose that this crept in purely because of ID cards -- it's much more likely to be because Blair and cronies were so enraged by the behaviour of the Lords in trying to protect some of our remaining basic freedoms during the wretched Terrorism Act episode -- but basically this means that there will be no effective check on Labour's enthusiasm to fob off on us ID cards or any of the rest of their police state bullshit.