Identity Cards

Part of Opposition Day — [15th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:14 pm on 6th July 2009.

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Photo of Patrick Mercer Patrick Mercer Conservative, Newark 9:14 pm, 6th July 2009

It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour, Dr. Palmer.

I wonder what the good folk of Manchester have done to have this wretched scheme visited on them. This whole argument bores me stiff, because I have been over-exposed to a policy and theory that should have been settled a long time ago. I have no doubt that Labour Members will point out my voting record, because I supported the proposals as a shadow Minister. At the time, we were broadly in support of the proposition. After the 2005 election, too, I sat through endless weeks of drivel, as the case was made time and again, in painful and needless detail, by which time we opposed the Government's proposals.

This issue bores me because the Government will not come clean about it. The reason I and others supported the measure originally was not because it was claimed to be a particularly powerful tool against terrorism. I can see that there may be advantages to the scheme provided that it works, that we can afford it, and that the cards cannot be forged. However, I cannot buy the argument that the card would ever be able to control, or even deter, terrorists. After the 2005 election the Government changed their position, and the prevention of terrorism became the principal argument for the card. I could not understand that, which is why I voted against the scheme the second time round.

I am sorry if I am ranting, but I am delighted that the Minister is in his place—I know from his record and his conduct that he will listen carefully to what I have to say. I am probably the only person in the Chamber tonight who has seen an identity card scheme—although that is a slight misnomer, as I shall explain—being put into practice to try to counter terrorism. We have already heard that identity cards were in place in this country during the second world war and for seven years afterwards. That is not the scheme that I mean; I was not around then, although I may look old enough. The scheme I mean was the introduction of a driving licence in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. It was never claimed to be an identity card or a tool to counter terrorism, but it was described to the security forces—I was a serving officer at the time—as a crucial tool against, principally, the Provisional IRA.

The driving licence had to be carried in Northern Ireland, and it was not like the simple piece of green paper that we carried in England, Scotland and Wales at the time. It was a more complex bit of kit. Initially it contained a photograph, and then it was further improved to contain a thumbprint or fingerprint. For the first couple of tours I did in Northern Ireland, the card was not in being. As I recall, it was introduced in 1978, and by the time that I returned in 1979 we were told in pre-deployment training, "Gentlemen, this is the answer. The Provisionals in particular use vehicles in the day-to-day execution of their business. You will, as a result of this card, be able to clamp down on individuals. It is not easy to forge—you will be able to see forgeries—and you will be able to identify those who are opposing you." Let us not forget that this was long before databases and computerised intelligence work.

We bought this argument hook, line and sinker, but the fallacy of it was brought home to me at about two o'clock on a rain-sodden night on a hillside in South Armagh, when any sensible Christian man would have been tucked up in bed rather than cuddling a rifle on the side of the road. We eventually saw a pair of headlights approaching us through a blackthorn hedge, and I sent two soldiers down to stop the vehicle and find out what was going on. They flagged the vehicle down and about three minutes later they came chasing back through the driving rain and said, "Right sir, he's fine. He's absolutely fine." "How do you know he's fine?" "He had one of these new driving licences—he's got to be all right." Suddenly, from being a tool to counter terrorism this driving licence turned into a pass that, in the eyes of the simple soldiers whom I was looking after, meant that that particular bloke was all right. Well, he was not.

Let me go on to give another example. In January 2006, in a mess hall of the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, just outside Baghdad, someone who was allegedly an Iraqi policeman came into the mess hall with a 100 lb device contained in webbing about his body and blew himself to pieces. He killed 17 American soldiers and injured about 35. When questioned afterwards about how this "alleged policeman" had got into the mess hall, the guard on the gate said, "Well, he had a pass on him." He had an identity card on him. In other words, in the examples that I have just given the Minister, these various cards—far from fighting terrorism—aided and abetted terrorism. The Minister might well challenge me on the Northern Ireland driving licence scheme, and we can discuss it if he has time, but that was certainly my experience.

I also found it quite extraordinary, during the endless iterations of Committees that I had to sit through, that the Government made it quite clear—or at least implied—that the scheme was not going to be voluntary at all. Yes, the inception would be voluntary, but enabling legislation was put in place that meant that, at the drop of a hat, identity cards and the concomitant costs could suddenly become compulsory.

There were also howlers that came with that legislation that made no sense whatsoever. For instance, if someone was not resident in the United Kingdom for a period of more than three months, they did not need an identity card. How could that possibly match up to the Government's claim that the cards would be an important tool against terrorists? Not all terrorists are home-grown. It is fascinating, for instance—as tomorrow is the anniversary of the bombings in 2005—that all four men involved in those bombings were home-grown passport-carrying Britons, yet they felt the need to carry multiple forms of identity on their bodies so that their dead bodies could be identified. In that case, had there been an identity card scheme in place, far from hindering those gentlemen, if that is the right term, in the execution—bad pun—of what they were doing to themselves, one of the documents that they would have carried would have been the very identity card that the Government have billed as a crucial tool against terrorism.

We will also find that that situation is impossible to solve if someone is a native or citizen of the Free State of southern Ireland. In other words, the southern Irish—people from Eire—living and working in this country will not be required to carry an identity card. We might think that it is all over in Northern Ireland and in Ireland as a whole, but, as the events of a few weeks ago at Massereene barracks and elsewhere showed, it patently is not.

I would suggest that there might be arguments for the card—theoretical arguments, in some ways—if, as I have already said, I thought that we could afford it, if I did not think that it was a gross intrusion on civil liberties, if I did not think that the cards could be forged, if I did not think that the Government were incapable of putting the scheme in place and, most importantly, if the Government would stop constantly shifting the ground on which they make their arguments. If they would come clean about the fact that the scheme is a menace, and not a nuisance, they could, in my eyes at least, recover some of the credibility that they had in the past. As things are, however, the scheme must be scrapped: it is expensive and a pest, and will aid terrorists rather than hindering them.

Annotations

James Clark
Posted on 8 Jul 2009 11:18 am (Report this annotation)

I’m afraid it would seem Mr Mercer is somewhat delusional if he believes he was a shadow Minister.
I think it was Adam Ingram that said: I note that he calls himself a shadow Minister, but he is more of a ghost Minister, because he does not have a Department to shadow.

Patrick Mercer originally supported the proposals for ID cards apparently the fact that the cards always were a gross intrusion on civil liberties did not stop him from supporting the proposals at that time and so I wonder just how important our civil liberties are to a man allegedly connected to security firms and companies that produce and sell Big Brother surveillance and control technology.

However, he is correct about the government shifting the ground on which they make their arguments and that the expensive aid to terrorists must be scrapped. To be entirely honest I was somewhat proud of his candid rhetoric and liked his graphic narrative of bygone days in Ireland.