Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Des Browne: Slimeball

Immigration Minister Des Browne has just been on BBC Radio 5! As we haven't had any ID knocking copy for a while, I think some of his points deserve scrutiny. For a start, can anyone take his answer to a caller complaining about the cost of the scheme seriously?

Mr. Browne felt moved to reply to the man, who referred to his own experience of World War 2-era national registration, in the following terms. "It (the 1939 scheme) wasn't actually free; everyone had to pay for it, in their taxes - I mean..they...they had to pay for it indirectly. We're going to be much more honest about this" So, does this mean, then, that the government is going to offset the £85 new poll tax against your income tax? After all, if it's no less free than the original scheme paid for out of general taxation, surely no tax funds should go into it? I wonder if Browne would agree, by extension, that the NHS is not "free at the point of us" because we pay for it out of our taxes, or that education is not provided free for the same reason? Or would he defend a proposal to privatise the police on the grounds that, no, policing is not free to the citizen because we pay for them in our taxes, and hence paying for policing would not be any more money?

This is one of the slimiest exercises in sophistry I've heard for a long time, and that's saying something. But at least he 'fessed up to the bill actually being £85.

It didn't get much better. On the question of why ID cards did not prevent the Madrid bombing, he replied that he had visited Spain and had been told by the Spanish government that (in some convoluted way I didn't quite follow) they did help fight domestic and international terrorism "because they know who they're looking for". EH? If you "know who you're looking for" your problem is already solved - you don't need ID cards to lock them up. Why would ID cards help to find out who is a terrorist anyway? And if they are such an advantage in the fight against terrorism - then why did the Spaniards get blown up and we, ah, didn't? If you take the IRA and ETA as comparable, then there doesn't seem to be a great difference in performance between us. If you look at "international terrorism", well, it would seem so far to be 1-0 to no identity cards. Or 2-0. After all, the hijackers' papers were all, without exception, in order.

Now, you could say that this just shows we're lucky. But then, what about all those evil plots to blacken the sky and stop the hens laying (or whatever) Charlie the Safety Elephant constantly says our great secret service has prevented? Surely he can't be (refined shudder) lying? After all, even without ID cards, we know there are Hundreds of Evil Terrorists! out there. Tony Blair said so. So what are they for?

Browne also repeated various routine government talking points which we have been through before. The usual funny figures about false identities used by terrorists, as always without any breakdown between false British identities and others unaffected by the pass laws, the usual inaccurate claim that we will "have" to have this technology "for passports". But no explanation of why, then, the government wants to use technology that is NOT standards compliant with the proposed ICAO passports, why we have to have an ID card as well, or why the ID Cards Bill has to be so draconian. Bah.

Whilst we're on the topic, a source tells me that Home Office civil servants have been receiving phone calls from people with South African accents (eh?) apparently carrying out a survey related to the ID card scheme. The questions are described as being "apparently intended for shops or restaurants, rather than law enforcement" - yes, they do want card readers everywhere! - and irrelevant. From the kinds of questions being asked, it would seem that the unpublicised "survey" is part of a Systems Analysis/Requirements Engineering study. My source was asked how many outages would be acceptable on a scale - he replied "none" - and how much downtime after each failure would be acceptable. Apparently the downtime scale ran from a week to six hours, which gives a strong impression of just how infuriating, intrusive, expensive and incompetent this thing is going to be.

Ironically, part way through the quiz, the Safety Elephant's telecoms security system cut off the call. Doh!

The South African-ness (my man reports hearing people speaking Afrikaans in the background) of the survey is interesting; I wonder if this means Dimension Data have been hired? Which would be interesting, as they are one of a small minority of major IT contractors who have yet to make a hash of a British government contract. Or perhaps whoever carried out the survey just outsourced the job to a South African call centre?

Does sending all that Sensitive! information to some poor nameless phone sheep chained to a desk in a striplit hellhole in God-knows-where really sound like a good idea? Thought not.

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