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28 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Why scrapping ID cards was the wrong decision for poor, marginalised groups

 If we had a braver government, it would revisit the issue.

By Peter Wilby

In the debate about Windrush, identity cards were hardly mentioned. New Labour proposed them in 2002. Polls showed overwhelming public support, though libertarians of left and right were opposed. Unfortunately, Labour, at the height of its digital enthusiasms, wanted to load some 50 separate categories of information on to the card (fingerprints, facial scans, iris scans, lifelong records of addresses, health records, National Insurance contributions, and so on), link them to a database and allow almost any bureaucratic busybody to access it. The scheme was criticised as expensive, unwieldy and careless of civil liberties and privacy. By the time it came into law in 2006, it had lost public support. The coalition government scrapped it in 2010 with few cards issued.

Had it gone ahead in a sensible form, it would have helped, if not wholly solved, problems about illegal immigration, health tourism and voter registration that governments now try to tackle in a more clumsy way, causing injustice for people such as Caribbean migrants who came here legally as children. A simple, speedily implemented scheme could have provided secure proof of identity long before hysteria over illegal immigration reached its peak. I supported identity cards when I was editor of the NS precisely because they would have helped poor, marginalised groups who had never acquired passports, driving licences, credit cards or any of the other proofs of identity that middle-class folk – including the most vociferous libertarians – carry routinely with them. If we had a braver government, it would revisit the issue.

Crumbling morale

Commentators rightly blame ministers for creating the “hostile environment” that led to the Windrush scandal. But I still think questions need asking about the lack of flexibility, imagination and common sense among officials dealing with real people in the NHS, job centres, passport offices and elsewhere. It ought to be obvious that grey-haired men and women in their fifties, sixties and seventies, some of whom have British regional accents, should not be caught up in a drive against illegal immigrants. Did nobody think of alerting more senior people that something was badly wrong?

Thanks to the “target culture” that governments of the past 30 years have created and to politicians’ cultivation of the view that public servants are untrustworthy dimwits, few officials now dare do anything but tick boxes. Questioning orders or bending the rules were never greatly valued in the public sector. But it was once far easier for officials to exercise discretion and judgement if they were so inclined. Crumbling Britain, which this magazine is highlighting, is not just about buildings, services and roads. The morale and confidence of people who work for the state has crumbled, too.

Baby joy

I normally ignore royal births. But I was cheered when I saw “Duchess of Cambridge in labour” as the lead headline on the BBC News website. If something terrible had happened – the US had bombed Iran or North Korea, say – the BBC would have made that the lead item. Wouldn’t it?

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War of words

Downing Street, it is reported, has been “wargaming”. Not over the results of bombing in Syria or sanctions on Russia, but over the only war that matters: the one between Remainers and Brexiteers in the Conservative Party. It concludes that, if Theresa May were to agree that Britain should stay in “a customs union” (but not, as I understand it, “the customs union”) with the EU, only Boris Johnson and Liam Fox would resign from the cabinet. Which sounds like a win-win for her.

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Nevertheless, No 10 says officially that May will not stay in any kind of customs union. This is in accordance with her strategy, which, as I have explained, is to keep fudging so that nobody has any idea what she’s doing. She is so good at it that history may hail her as one of our greatest leaders, who saved the nation not through oratory about fighting on the beaches, but through speaking so robotically that even the craziest Brexiteers were bored into acquiescence.

Spoiled for choice

The government plans to extend “personal health budgets”, now available to only 23,000 patients, to as many as 350,000 people with disabilities including dementia and mental illness. The idea is that patients are in a better position than medical professionals or bureaucrats to choose the services they need. They could spend their budgets, which may be as much as £50,000 annually, on equipment, exercise classes, carers, and even iPads or football season tickets.

Prepare, if the proposal comes into effect, for private providers making offers to patients to “manage” their budgets and for thousands being ripped off, as they were when given “choice” over how to use their pension funds. “Choice”, the Tories’ favourite word, has two problems. First, many would prefer reliable services. Second, it depends on a “rational consumer”. We should know by now that no such creature exists.

Mistaken identity

Alan Parker, who has resigned as chair of Save the Children following criticism of his handling of sexual harassment allegations at the charity, once played an entirely unintentional role in first inflating and then deflating my ego. Early this century, I was told that Alan Parker had praised something I wrote, which happened to criticise Tony Blair, as “the best thing I have ever read”. I assumed that was the Alan Parker who directed films such as Midnight Express, The Commitments and Mississippi Burning. Thrilled to be noticed by such a distinguished figure, I wondered if he would turn my writings into a film. Only later did I learn that my admirer was another Alan Parker, founder of the PR firm Brunswick, later Save the Children’s chair – and, more importantly, a close confidant of Gordon Brown. 

This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum