In a fantasy league of their own
Steve McQueen plays the Cincinnati Kid in the film of the same name. He sets out to depose Edward G. Robinson, the king of stud poker, and gets beaten hollow. Crestfallen? Not a bit of it the master is so immaculate that the Kid's defeat is a pleasure.
Every civil liberties organisation in the country must now feel like the Cincinnati Kid. We tried to turn the tide against the government's plans to introduce ID cards into the UK. We collected evidence. We constructed arguments. We built risk assessment models. We polished our prose and briefed the press and lobbied the politicians and all to no avail. For six years the ID cards scheme sailed blithely on, impervious to attack.
Impervious, that is, until the master the government stepped up to the plate and demonstrated, to us callow amateurs, how to do the job properly.
Using no more than two CDs and an envelope, the master showed how to blow the idea that the government can protect us from identity theft out of the water. Bang went the banking details of half the people in the country. No windy arguments. Just two CDs and an envelope. That's all it took to show that the government are part of the problem, not the solution.
The government promised that they know how to run secure systems, our personal data is safe with them.
The Kids prepared 24-page briefing notes on public key encryption, for baffled news editors everywhere, to prove mathematically that this is not the case. Little League. Even in Cincinnati.
Look how the pros do it.
With consummate elegance.
First Gordon Brown's tax credits system handed out £6 billion by mistake. Oops, butterfingers. Then the tax credits website had to be taken down because fraud reached industrial levels. Oops, there we go again.
That is the government's own ineffable masterclass in how to destroy public confidence in the government's abilities. What was John Reid's expression? "Not fit for purpose"?
The ID cards scheme is meant to ensure that only those people entitled to them can benefit from public services. That is one of the most popular reasons for introducing ID cards. How do you forfeit that popularity? This time a single word was enough. At presentations to suppliers and other stakeholders, asked if ID cards would be required to demonstrate entitlement to public services, back came the answer from Meg Hillier MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Identity), "no".
Are there any plans to ensure that only ID cardholders can obtain non-emergency state healthcare? According to the Department of Health, answering a Freedom of Information request, no, not only are there no such plans but there haven't even been any discussions about it so much quicker, so much more elegant than the long papers on the immaterial incidence of UK health tourism offered by the latter-day Steve McQueens.
The Identity and Passport Service (IPS), the people due to issue us all with ID cards, promised to provide a system for employers to check whether prospective recruits can work in the UK legally. Providing this system was one of the strategic actions, no less, included in IPS's strategic action plan.
The Cincinnati Kids thought they knew roughly what to expect. On past form, the system would be written by illegal immigrants in the IT department of a recruitment agency under investigation for people trafficking. Something like that. That would prove that IPS are unreliable.
There's a much easier way to do it. IPS would provide the system by June 2007, they promised. In the event, they simply didn't provide it. They didn't provide it in June 2007. And they still haven't provided it a year later.
That is the sublime and transcendent way to make people understand the strategic unreliability of IPS.
IPS promised to produce invitations to tender (ITTs) for the biometric goods and services needed to make their ID cards work. These strategic documents also were due in June 2007, they also didn't materialise then and they also still haven't but, in a masterstroke, IPS have awarded one biometrics contract anyway.
What about the ITT for this contract, you ask? Shouldn't there be one? Didn't IPS promise one? Isn't that the law?
Steve, a word in your ear, wise up, you're in the presence of a master, IPS have got that covered, look on in helpless admiration instead of an ITT, they issued a consultation document to the public, asking them what they, the public, think the prospective suppliers need to know.
Confused? You will be.
Two Prime Ministers, four Home Secretaries and an army of bag carriers and understrappers have repeatedly declared that the biometrics chosen for the ID cards scheme are reliable enough to identify people securely. They would say that, wouldn't they without that, there's no earthly point having IPS's ID cards.
The government biometrics trial conducted in 2004 revealed that the proposed fingerprinting technology fails about 20% of the time. Oops. Again. When this was pointed out by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committe, what did IPS say? "It wasn't really a trial".
Beat that. Kid.
Don't waste time pointing out that "in that case 20% of regular, decent people will have trouble proving their right to work in the UK legally. Never mind criminals and terrorists, the rest of us are going to suffer from this flaky biometrics technology". It just makes you look bewildered. You're wasting your time.
And don't try to get clever with your "if that wasn't a trial, then we're about to invest £19 billion in a scheme which we haven't even tested". Just don't. Just move on.
IPS did. They moved on to claim that ID cards would make it easier to open a bank account and to obtain a bank loan. The banks disagreed.
No Cincinnati Kid, surely, would have the gall to carry on bluffing after that.
But IPS do. They promptly insisted that all airside workers at airports would be compelled to have ID cards to improve security. Now 14 senior representatives of the airline industry have written to point out not only that the ID cards scheme is meant to be voluntary but also that their airside staff are already vetted, oddly enough, security is not a new issue, we weren't all born yesterday, and they can't see that IPS ID cards would add anything to our safety.
The government promised after the 2001 election that they would deliver. ID cards are meant to be essential to protect us against the immediate dangers of crime and terrorism. And IPS will deliver. When? 2022. In 14 years time. Surreal. Will criminals and terrorists politely wait for 14 years?
One man understands how to deal with this government. Rt Hon David Davis MP resigned his seat to fight a byelection against the Monster Raving Loony Party. That's the way to do it.
But not the rest of us Kids, we just don't have that spark of wayward genius. The government promised after the 2005 election that they would listen. They really want to listen to us. They're serious. So serious that at a consultation with stakeholders in Edinburgh on Monday 30 June, nine McQueens were arrested when they tried to talk to Meg Hillier. Nine McQueens, plus one four year-old child.
Always capable of surprises, it's original, it's inspired, it's wicked and it's beyond us. Only days after Gordon Brown's speech on getting the balance right between security and freedom, which wholesome, worthy civil liberties organisation would ever have dreamt of taking a four year-old into custody? For what? Aggravated consultation?
No, admit it my fellow Cincinnati Kids, we never stood a chance. The government's ID cards scheme may well be an expensive confidence trick carried out by incompetent fantasists but we couldn't hold back the stampede towards £19 billion of taxpayers' money.
It took a class act to destroy the credibility of the government, of parliament and of the civil service. Only the government themselves could annihilate the public's trust so comprehensively.
Nothing to do with us, when the ID cards scheme is cancelled, it will be entirely thanks to the government's own olympic political skills. Step up to the podium Jacqui Smith, Home Secretary, the Edward G. Robinson de nos jours. The gold medal is yours.
And you know what? No hard feelings. It's been a pleasure to lose to such a master.
David Moss has spent five years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.