ONLINE ONLY: ID Cards to be Labour’s Final Fiasco?

After widespread protest, a Japanese High Court ruled that their similar scheme could not legally be enforced. Will people in the UK just roll over and allow the government to know all about them?

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On 21st November what is now known as the Identity and Passport Service launched a 12 week consultation on the secondary legislation required to introduce identity cards. The Identity Cards Act 2006 needs to be supported by regulations before it can be brought into force. Until now only sections establishing criminal offences and concerning forged passports or driving licences have been in use. Now foreigners married to UK citizens or in civil partnerships will need to apply for ID cards to extend their legal stay in the UK, as will foreigners working here or foreign students. Despite vociferous opposition and the threat of legal action from the British Airlines Pilots Association, many workers at airports will also need them. Pilots are threatening a strike.

It will be interesting to see what kind of protest there will be, and no doubt the Government has decided to introduce compulsory cards with salami tactics to head off mass protest. In 1982 Kathy Morikawa, a Canadian married to a Japanese academic, who had been in Japan for 9 years and intended to stay there permanently, just said no when asked to give her fingerprints. Kathy went public, the New York Times picked up the story, and others began to refuse. Eventually the number of resident foreigners refusing reached 13,000 and an Imperial Amnesty was declared. Also a subsequent attempt to introduce universal identification registration resulted in widespread protest, and in January 2006 the High Court in Osaka ruled that the “Juki Net”, the residence register, infringed on people’s privacy if they objected and that people could refuse to allow their personal details to be recorded.

But will people in the UK simply roll over and allow the State to know all about them? Many people associate the giving of fingerprints with an accusation of criminal behaviour, and no amount of bland reassurance is going to prevent distress.

The cards will carry a photograph and the name of the person. However, all the card will prove is that the person who applied for the card is the person carrying it. It will not prove identity, since it is very easy to obtain a fake referee and false documents, and most inspection of ID cards will inevitably be done without reading the fingerprints. There is nothing to stop a person equipped with someone’s birth certificate – easy to obtain – from applying for an ID card in the name of that individual. I have worked for many years as a solicitor. Most of my clients are criminals. I have often been asked to countersign photographs for passports or driving licences, and have been happy to do so, knowing that I am protected by having to sign the application and to endorse the photographs with my personal signature. With ID card applications, countersigning will no longer be required, making fraud very much easier. Also anyone wishing to obtain a false card, who does not want to go to the trouble of applying properly, can easily obtain one speedily over the internet.

In the final version of the Identity Cards Act some attempts to respond to objections can be observed. No longer will it be necessary to define one’s “ethnic group”. On all police charge sheets “ethnicity” is now recorded. Options are limited – Asian/Asian British, Black/Black British, Chinese, Arab, Mixed (you have to record what the mixture is), White British; Irish; Any other white background. This can easily cause distress. Indians do not necessarily like being lumped in with Pakistanis, and Kurds and Iranians can be distressed at being labelled Arab, although the average police officer cannot tell the difference. At present “ethnicity”, or perhaps officialdom should be more honest and talk about “colour”, is not required, but it was initially required in the Bill before it passed into law, and we may expect it make a reappearance once we are all suitably anaesthetized. A government so obsessed with “ethnicity” that it makes labelling oneself a compulsory question on the national census and insists on it being stated on any application for work in the civil service is likely to want it declared for ID cards too.

Also there is no longer a requirement to state all your addresses. People these days often have complicated living arrangements and an obligation to give all the addresses at which a person can be said to be living is not likely to be observed. Typically many of the people I have represented over the years have several places at which they could be said to live. A man – it is usually a man – will often give his mother’s address to the police but will actually be living with his girlfriend, and for reasons not unconnected with the DSS would prefer not to say so. We can be sure that many of the addresses given on the Register will be bogus or out of date.

One of the worrying aspects of the legislation is the powers given to the Secretary of State to vary the information which will be required. The Government will no doubt point out that most variations will have to be laid before Parliament, but this gives little confidence. Baroness Shirley Williams on the radio programme Any Questions said she would rather go to prison than have an i.d. card. Sadly, going to prison will not be an option, since apart from a very few criminal offences created by the Act, most protests will only be liable to civil financial penalties. Opposition will be a source of revenue: there will be few martyrs. Baroness Williams only succeeded in showing us that politicians do not bother to study the legislation they pass.

Changes to the Register can be notified by telephone, as can loss or damage to a card and the loss of a card should be notified within three months. Since notifying a change will cost money, as will renewal of a card (cards will only be valid for 10 years), there is likely to be widespread avoidance.

Enforcement of the payment of penalties is also going to be interesting. An objection to a penalty has to be made on a prescribed form 30 days after the penalty notice is received. Many people are ostriches and will do nothing, waiting until the bailiffs arrive to object and not understanding that unless an objection is made early, no one will look at the question of liability. If there is an objection the penalty can even be increased. Any appeal would then have to be to the County Court, and not the magistrates courts with which many people are familiar.

I can remember the Poll Tax, the queues of defaulters that stretched out of the door of our local magistrates court into the street. I can also remember that many people simply did not pay. These were the people who do not officially exist – people who do not claim benefit, who do not pay national insurance, who work cash in hand and who cannot be traced. There are many such people. Personally, I would rather they were living that way than burgling my house. I am not expecting them to sign up for an ID card for which they must pay.

The Book of Revelation, which some people feel does not really belong in the Bible because it is too disturbing, contains a vision of people not being able to buy or sell without a mark branded in their hands. Perhaps it is the intention of this Government to take all our fingerprints before we can be permitted to exist. But perhaps also this will be Labour’s version of the great Poll Tax fiasco, and we can look forward to their being voted out by disgruntled families, who suddenly realize that it is not just nasty foreigners who are being asked to give intrusive details.