New Labour has brought in several pieces of repressive legislation recently that attack our civil liberties but at least they've abandoned the unpopular plan for compulsory ID cards, haven't they? No. The ID card scheme is still very much alive. Even though it is not yet compulsory to have an ID card, the voluntary pilot scheme has been extended. It has already been on trial for a few months in north-west England.A limited take-up of just a few thousand reflects public concerns and many people cannot afford the £30 cost. Despite this the government have pressed on. From 8 February cards have been available in London to all 16-24 year olds that can stump up the cash. The scheme remains compulsory for foreign nationals, fuelling fears of discrimination. Stop and search, another power extended by New Labour, is already used massively disproportionately against people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
The ID card's days may be numbered - if a Tory government is elected in May, they promise to ditch it. But civil liberties campaigners shouldn't celebrate. Cameron and Co still want biometric passports containing the same information as the ID card and want to maintain the national identity register that stores this. Anyone registering for a new passport is automatically added to this database. Both main parties want a version of this scheme, despite its unpopularity. The public is divided on the issue but high profile data losses in the last couple of years have increased opposition. People rightly worry about their data's security and accuracy when looked after by the government, especially with public sector cuts likely to affect staffing levels. There are other potential problems such as the impossibility of collecting some biometric data from people with some disabilities. Recent history also provides many examples of government IT schemes that failed to function properly and were delivered hugely behind schedule and over budget.
We are told to expect massive cuts to vital services to bring down public debt but this scheme's cost is astronomical - around £5 billion according to the government but at least £10-20 billion according to the London School of Economics. Workers are expected to pay twice, through their taxes and by paying for the documents themselves. An ID card looks set to double in price from the current £30 if it is extended nationally next year while a passport now costs almost £80.We are told that this scheme is needed in the fight against terrorism. The government has used this argument as a cover to bring in many repressive powers. By invoking the horrors of the 7/7 attacks in London and other atrocities they hope to gain support for ID cards. In fact this and other 'anti-terror' measures will add to the disaffection already felt by many youth, particularly those from Muslim and other ethnic minority backgrounds who will feel (with justification) that their communities are unfairly targeted.
What ID cards and the national identity register will achieve is a greater ability for the state to monitor individuals and to infringe civil liberties. Taken along with all the other legislation New Labour has passed, the power of the state is boosted and can be used against anyone the government considers a threat. When workers resist being made to pay for a crisis caused by bosses and big bankers, these powers could then be used against trade unionists and socialists. We now know that employers in the construction industry were running a blacklist which meant workers have been denied jobs due to past trade union activities. Last December the courts blocked the planned BA cabin crew strike, showing very clearly whose side the law is on. An unelected management can lawfully butcher workers' living conditions, then an unelected judge can say it's illegal when 90% of them vote to strike against it!
The ID card and national identity register schemes should be opposed. Trade union campaigning was instrumental in pushing the government back from imposing compulsory ID cards on some airport workers. Trade unionists and socialists should make sure they fight to stop this whole scheme - the fight for civil liberties is vital to the whole working class movement.