Monday, September 22, 2003

YOUR PAPERS PLEASE! and how the Home Office's mind works

So - it's almost here. David Blunkett is apparently pressing to get a Bill creating national identity cards in the Queen's Speech. And - after all the babble about "entitlement cards" that wouldn't be called ID cards so as to be more cuddly, voluntary schemes and the like - he wants them to be compulsory, universal and requestable by the police. (What was less unpleasant about a card whose sole purpose was to show that you weren't an Evil Bogus Foreigner and therefore could be treated in hospital without offence to the Mail, anyway?) According to today's Guardian, the cards would not be "compulsory in the sense that you would have to carry them in the street" but you could be ordered to produce one. Which makes so much sense.

But why this grey and grim insistence on IDs? One thing about this issue that may please Mr. B is that it never seems to go away - I can barely remember a time when the government wasn't mulling over the idea. Perhaps he is hoping that everyone will be so tired and bored that we won't notice. Howard, Straw, Blunkett - all the last three home secretaries went over the issue of identity cards at tiresome length. This is a common feature of the Home Office, though - it does not invent new policies, it only recycles. The same things come up over and over again. Cutting state support for refugees who haven't registered as soon as a bureaucrat thinks was possible? Yeah, been there before. Watered-down ID cards? Many times. Real ID cards? Yadda, yadda, yadda. "Britishness"? "Citizenship"? Remember John Patten and Michael Howard and their touching belief that more Union Jacks in schools would keep the little buggers from going criminal? My law-enforcement expert (or to be clearer, my dad) is of the view that the only Home Secretary to do anything original with the police since Robert Peel was Roy Jenkins (more cars, personal radios, the beginning of computerisation, breath tests and speed traps). This is not new and not good. After all, let's have a look at why Blunkett wants to number us. His most recent statements on this were on a TV show yesterday - ain't parliamentary democracy great? - when he was asked how many illegal immigrants were in Britain. This is obviously a question with no answer - how do you count people who by definition avoid being counted?
But Blunkers, having conceded this, went on to deliver a paean to identity cards. Apparently he wants to "regain trust on asylum and immigration, and one of those trusts is knowing who is here". One of those trusts? Eh?

Apart from moaning about the English, note that it's not supposed to be about driving refugees away - but about regaining trust. Making the public think that the Home Office is in control - that is to say, doing something in order to be seen doing something. Great. And what a noble cause. Not attempting to convict criminals or detect terrorists, but denying refugees food money more efficiently. For this high goal, we are all to be charged £40 a shot (and you can bet your eyes that this stealth-tax opportunity will not go unnoticed at the Treasury) and individually numbered. What opportunities this will give to the police racists' club. Where once you had to find an excuse to stop and search a black person, now all you need do to amuse yourself on a long shift is to ask a few for their papers (please). This is worrying, and for wider reasons too. Rather like Blair's old back-of-a-napkin job concerning on the spot fines, it will be a breach of the best British policing traditions, an opportunity for corruption, and another move away from investigative policing by consent towards national-security policing of a population assumed hostile.

Mind you, though - one thing it will be is yet another addition to Blair's stack of toxic policies. If it's "suicide to retreat" from foundation hospitals (which both the people who understand them dislike and everyone else hates), tuition fees/top-up fees (which everyone hates), the occupation of Iraq (do you see a pattern emerging?) - then surely this is another suicide project far too vital to abandon! Straight against the wind, right into the seas, heading dead straight for the rocks. Nelson could turn a blind eye - but only because he was right. This lot look more and more like Sir Clowdesley Shovell, who ran his whole fleet onto the Isles of Scilly and got murdered by the locals.

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