Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Choice quotes from the Lords ID card debate

The House of Lords last night gave the ID cards bill its second reading and moved it to committee stage. Here are some choice quotes from the debate, with some questions from me.

Baroness Scotland: "the identity card scheme is first and foremost to provide individuals with a convenient method of proving their identity" -- so why will we be forced to get one?

Baroness Anelay: "I thank the Minister for setting out the Government's case with such care and charm that, for one passing moment, it could seem the most reasonable thing in the world to believe that they were doing us all a big favour by bringing forward this Bill. But that moment passes rapidly and we return to reality."

Lord Phillips: "What none of us wants—even the Government, I think—is a slippery slope, at the bottom of which broods an over-mighty state, where the privacy of the citizen is largely figmentary, the whole culture of freedom is undermined and the managerialist and corporatist values that now seem to dominate the public as well as private realms triumph."

Lord Waddington: "In one case in 1951, Lord Goddard castigated the police for using powers passed to safeguard national security to require motorists to produce identity cards as a matter of routine whenever they were stopped on the road for whatever reason. In another case, two girls minded to spend the night in a hotel with men friends registered in false names and were prosecuted—mark you, prosecuted under a measure passed for reasons of national security. I do not think that anyone in the House today would be brave enough to say that under this scheme, such abuse would not take place... I do not argue that no national identification scheme could ever be justified, but when the Government present to Parliament a Bill that gives the Secretary of State power to make no less than 61 statutory instruments; when they ask for enormously wide powers to collect and store on a national identity register information about every person in the land and then allow that information to be accessed by a wide range of public bodies; when they seek power to require the citizen to have a card and to pay the cost of getting it, and keeping it up to date, it is surely up to the Government to show not just that some benefit may come of it all, but that the scheme is absolutely necessary to meet the threat that the country faces and that the cost in terms of individual liberty and money is absolutely justified. So far, the Government have done nothing of the sort."

Lord Holme: "this Bill fundamentally adjusts the relationship between the citizen and the state. How could it be otherwise when it will put the state in possession of an unprecedented, consolidated file of information about every individual which it did not have before?"

Lord Thomas: "The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made huge claims for identity cards. They were apparently the answer to globalised crime, and would prevent terrorism, forgery and fraud. It seemed rather like saying that the possession of a driving licence would prevent road traffic offences... It is said that the Bill will protect my identity. I think that it hands over the control of my identity to a central government database. As my noble friend Lord Holme put it, it puts my identity at the disposal of the state. It is not just the basic information that will be on the database; it will be cross-referenced by numbers to my medical records, tax records, work records and—if I have them—criminal records. The history of this country is a struggle against authoritarian regimes such as those of Napoleon and Hitler, and against collective societies for individual freedom. Knowing the history of the party represented opposite, it strikes me as strange that it should set about creating an instrument that may be manipulated in future for authoritarian reasons. Knowledge is power, and we are putting power in the hands of a government who may in future have the most malign intentions... Surely a balance has to be struck. As a criminal practitioner, I do not see how the identity card will solve crime, dispose of terrorism and all the other things that are claimed for it. That is rubbish."

Lord Bhattacharrya: "As a technologist, I have no doubt whatever about the security of the system... We must also remember that we are talking about an IT system and we must have an unprecedented level of security. It can be designed in such a way as to prevent failure and attacks in all forms" -- I would have hoped a technologist would pay more attention to the available evidence, such as the high failure rates found by the government's own studies. He obviously doesn't know much about computer security either if he thinks such high-value systems can be designed in a way to prevent all failures and attacks. However, his one insightful comment is that "I can see that there would be pressure to include on a successful identity system key medical questions, prescriptions, medical reports and, as we move towards genetic fingerprinting, our DNA."

Lord Campbell-Savours: "why not let the public decide by giving them the option of offering DNA data for inclusion? Millions would volunteer. Some might say that it would be the wrong millions, but with a foot in the door it would soon become mandatory as part of the long-term exercise that we are engaged in."

The Earl of Northesk: "there is a palpable sense in which the Government now perceive their responsibility to be to rule, rather than govern, us. The distinction is not merely semantic. I hold to the conviction that governments—all governments of whatever political hue—should be servants of the people. Yet the Bill will do much to deliver the reverse. It will move us inexorably towards being servants of the state. Bluntly, I am unconvinced, given the marginal nature of the potential benefits on offer, that this is a bargain that we should knowingly or willingly enter into."

Lord Mayhew: "the devil does not inhabit merely the detail; he resides in many mansions, and from these he must be evicted by the processes at which this House excels. If he cannot be, the Bill deserves to fail. For example, there is the extraordinary feature that in no fewer than 60 instances the Secretary of State is given power to effect substantial legislative changes. This is virtually a skeletal enabling Bill, and I look forward with interest to see what the Select Committee has to say about it. These instances must be drastically reduced."

Baroness Kennedy: "Even if the system of ID cards is really robust, the most that it will do is limit the use of forgeries to those with the funds: terrorists, foreign governments, high-end criminals such as fraudsters, gun-runners and drug importers—precisely the people of whom the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, has spoken. So those people will have no difficulty in forging or in obtaining forged documents. They will be unaffected by the system... What is misunderstood is the fundamental way in which identity cards change the relationship between the citizen and the state catastrophically and permanently. You will have to ask yourselves why most of the rest of Europe has at some time or another succumbed to fascism but we have not. Was that just luck? Was that something to do with the plucky British personality? No, the reason we are as a people the way we are is that we have had institutions and law built on an inherent scepticism of the state. And a good thing, too... My noble friend Lord Giddens said that the assertion of identity was a mechanism of freedom. A requirement to assert your identity is a mechanism of oppression, and that is why so many people in this country, when it is explained to them, will feel affronted by the idea that we are going to be the first common law country to carry identity cards."

Baroness Seccombe: "I have seen many things in my time in politics, but I never thought that I would see the day when a Labour Government were made to look illiberal by Lord Goddard. Doubtless, the noble Baroness, when she next dines with her legal chums and remembers happier days when she had justice and liberty blowing wind in her sails rather than battling against her on Bill after Bill, will reflect on that... We need to know far more about the cost of this plan. There is too much creative accounting; too much laying off of expenses that would not otherwise have been incurred as if they had nothing in the world to do with the ID card scheme. Why otherwise are we going far beyond the level of biometrics in passports required by other nations?... The purpose of all this, as so many noble Lords have said, should be the first thing we get to probe in Committee. It will help us all to know that there is more reason for the freest country in the world building the world's most elaborate system of state registration of identity than a personal passion of one politician whose political life is ebbing away."

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