Identity cards, the national database and EU fundamental rights
The government’s unlovely and unloved Bill for the introduction of (eventually compulsory) identity cards, and of the even more objectionable national database which will track all our movements and transactions from cradle to grave for the convenience of the security services, is about to be presented to parliament. The irreplaceable Bob Marshall-Andrews, back in the House of Commons by a providential whisker, has pointed out that the Bill – already estimated to involve public expenditure of nearly 8 billion pounds (yes, that’s billion with a b) – contains no provision for citizens to find out what information about them is held on the monstrous database, no way of checking that it’s accurate, and no way of getting it corrected if it’s not, as most of it assuredly won’t be. It will be interesting to see how ministers square this with the provisions of the European Union ‘Charter of Fundamental Rights’, as signed and proclaimed by the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the EU Commission at the European Council meeting in Nice on 7 December 2000 (the Charter was to have been incorporated as Part II of the ill-fated EU draft ‘Constitution’, now efficiently despatched by the French, but it remains a valid EU instrument accepted by the EU governments, including that of Mr Blair):
Article II-8: Protection of personal data
1. Everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her.
2. Such data must be processed fairly for specified purposes and on the basis of the consent of the person concerned or some other legitimate basis laid down by law. Everyone has the right of access to data which has been collected concerning him or her, and the right to have it rectified.
3. Compliance with these rules shall be subject to control by an independent authority.
Even if the Bill is amended to incorporate these safeguards, such as they are, the whole scheme will remain a gigantic white elephant. No-one has so far succeeded in explaining what benefits it will confer to justify the enormous expenditure, and the home secretary has already dropped the pretence that it will somehow help to catch terrorists or even do anything much about benefit fraud. As for ‘identity theft’, the growing number of electronic transactions not involving the physical presence of participants will make the ID cards largely irrelevant. Already the cost of each card is estimated to be close to £100 a head, with some recent estimates two or three times this amount – and a condition of Gordon Brown’s acceptance of the scheme is that it must be self-financing. So it will be in practice both an onerous poll tax and also a gross intrusion into the privacy of British citizens, details of whose private affairs will be available to the government and all its agencies without the citizen’s consent and at his or her expense.
Fortunately there will be some protection against this Snoopers’ Charter in the extreme improbability of the government succeeding in setting up such an enormous computer system that actually works: it will be far larger than any of the catastrophic computer schemes that have failed successive government departments so far, and that much less likely to function, any more than most of its more modest predecessors have done. If it actually comes to full term (which will be many more than nine months!), the waste of public money involved will make the Dome look like a financial triumph and the poll tax an electoral bonus. However, even if Messrs Blair and Clarke succeed in getting their bastard baby past the massed objectors in both houses of parliament and onto the statute book, with a little luck the first thing that Gordon Brown will do on entering No. 10 will be to cancel it. It won’t be a day too soon.
30 May 2005