Taking their message to the malls

Observations on ID cards

A couple of days before the third reading of the Identity Cards Bill in the Commons last month, "sources close to Charles Clarke" were quoted in the press as saying that a roadshow of the fancy technology involved in the cards "had found little public resistance to biometrics".

The message to the public - and also to the MPs who were about to vote on the issue - was that despite a lot of chattering-class moaning about civil liberties, real people out in the cities of Britain didn't really mind having their fingerprints, eyes and faces captured for recognition software.

The bill was duly passed and the junior Home Office minister, Andy Burnham, has suggested darkly that those who have been warning about the dangers of a centralised national database of uniquely numbered individuals "clearly have something to hide".

But his own department is being less than frank about the roadshow, for some of those real people in British cities would have difficulty recognising their supposed contributions to the debate.

It was in the last weeks of September that Burnham took the technology on a seven-date tour of shopping malls from Edinburgh to Southampton. Under the banner "Passports are changing" (rather than, say, "Compulsory ID cards are on their way"), the stand offered shoppers the chance to test out the fingerprinting, face and iris recognition equipment.

While they did so, staff handed out leaflets explaining that biometric passports are being introduced, among other reasons, "to meet international standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation". However, the ICAO does not, in fact, require these elaborate procedures; it demands only a standard digital photograph. Despite this, all new British passports now contain a blank biometric chip (data storage will be phased in from 2006).

Nor were these roadshow events advertised, indeed the Home Office consistently refused to give details to the public and only gave local media one day's notice. The aim, no doubt, was to keep away opponents of ID cards, for it seems the government wanted those real British people to give their reactions to the equipment exclusively on the basis of what it told them, and without any discussion of compulsory ID cards. That is not quite how things worked out.

In Edinburgh, protesters who turned up were allowed to put questions to Burnham but at Gateshead police removed peaceful protesters before the minister arrived - they were told their leaflets were "inappropriate". (Since shopping malls are usually private property they are subject to by-laws that prohibit unauthorised leafleting.)

When the roadshow reached the Mall Galleries in Bristol things went badly for the minister, who found his media interviews interrupted by local anti-ID cards campaigner Dave Gould booming: "What have you got to hide?" The BBC Points West report opened with a hand attempting to cover the lens, while Gould could be heard grilling an agitated and uncomfortable minister.

At the next stop, Southampton, sixth date of the tour, Burnham did not appear at all, after which there was an unexpected delay of almost three weeks before the final roadshow.

In effect, this turned out to be an invitation-only event for Labour MPs at Whitehall on 17 October, the day before the third reading of the ID Cards Bill. Presumably they were regaled with the message about what real people supposedly think.

The bill, whose far-reaching powers have been described by Labour MP Neil Gerrard as "a form of creeping compulsion" barely hinted at in his party's May election manifesto, was eventually passed by 25 votes.

One enthusiastic participant in that final Whitehall roadshow, who happily tested the software, was Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West. Salter is the MP who recently replied to a concerned correspondent with the words: "We won the election. Now we implement the manifesto. Got a problem with that?"