The EU, the Blair government and ID cards
Heads up, people - ID cards propaganda phase two is under way, and it's starting in the gloomy recesses of the EU where no newspaper ever dares send its reporters.
Today the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) will be addressed by two British representatives, Simon Watkin (Chair of the Co-operation in Criminal Matters Working Group - which effectively doesn't exist according to Google - and former Private Secretary to David Blunkett during his time as Home Secretary, where he helped found the Home Office's Hi-Tech Crime Team and worked as head of the Covert Investigations Policy Team) and David Johnson (from the Metropolitan Police's Special Operations department).
Today's meeting will be followed on Wednesday morning by a debate with Home Secretary Charles Clarke and Justice, Freedom and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini in the European Parliament on "ways to combat terrorism more effectively without undermining civil liberties".
The aim of both Clarke's Wednesday debate and today's meeting? To convince the EU to legislate to enable law enforcement agencies to access and store pretty much any information they want from "public communications networks" - i.e. phone calls, emails, ISP records, the works - "for the purpose of combatting crime, including terrorism". Basically, phone tapping (and its various internet cousins) would become fine and admissable in court. But lurking behind this is the spectre of ID.
The emphasis in that quote above is mine - it comes from this.pdf of today's Committee agenda, and seems to mark a subtle shift in the government's rhetoric and tactics for all of their planned electronic surveillance of their own population. Remember that whole business with Tony McNulty admitting that the government had "over-sold" ID cards (at a Fabian Society meeting sponsored by, erm, a company specialising in IT and biometrics, according to Private Eye)? That was the first clue that the approach was changing.
In the wake of Charles Clarke's admission that ID cards wouldn't have prevented the London bombings - not to mention the fact that the terrorists all seem deliberately to have carried or left existing forms of ID and that the majority were "clean skins" never flagged as potential threats - any claims that ID cards would help prevent terrorist attacks seem like even more nonsense than they did before. So now it will be crime in general which is the professed target, with the few counter-terrorism benefits they can come up with tagged on the end.
But simply shifting the emphasis to win over the gullible public won't be enough. Opposition to ID has been growing amongst MPs, and with his reduced majority Blair can't be certain of getting an ID card bill through unamended any more. Then there's the added - and more serious as far as Blair's concerned - problem of the Chancellor. Gordon is worried about cost, and the Treasury could end up vetoing any further "progress" towards the database state.
British delegate to today's meeting Simon Watkin has long been aware of the difficulties of getting legal permission for "data retention" as this report of an October 2003 conference demonstrates - he mentions the restrictive "need for primary legislation" twice in the space of a couple of paragraphs. It's just too tricky to get the concept of this kind of ID card through a British parliament - the more they learn about it, the less they're going to like it. It's just not very British, let's face it, and gives the state far more potential power over the individual than it has posessed in centuries. That's enough to make a lot of backbenchers very squeamish indeed.
So, your own Treasury is reluctant and your own parliament can't be trusted to vote the way you want them to? Simple - pop over the Channel and try and get your plans imposed on the country from Brussels (or, in this case, Strasbourg). ID cards - even if not quite such hardcore ones as Blair's lot want to impose - have existed in several EU states for years. Most can't see the problem, and would likely not need to change much should some new EU legislation over ID come into force - in Germany, Italy and France, not to mention several other countries, ID cards are simply a fact of life. So French, German, Italian and God knows how many other MEPs would - the Blair government hopes - simply not understand the fuss, and vote through new legislation, to become binding on Britain, without even thinking about it.
Game, set and match Blair - ID cards get introduced without a vote in parliament, Gordon can't complain about the cost without getting into trouble with Brussels, and any public complaints about the new bits of intrusive plastic can be fobbed off with the old "it's the EU's fault - it's out of our hands" excuses which get trotted out pretty much any time European governments think they can get away with it.
Not good, folks. If you can track down reports of these meetings, or hear of any more, I reckon they'd be grateful of a tad more publicity - after all, the whole point of this scheme is to have more information, surely?