Councillor Peter Greenhalgh who proposed the motion
Councillor Stan Pajak gives an interview for the BBC
no2id interview #1
no2id interview #2
Charles Clarke on the door
The mayor accepts a leaflet
Many arriving councillors were reluctant to tell the campaigners whether they would be supporting the motion; however former mayor Stan Pajak (Lib Dem, Eastcott) took the time to give an interview to BBC Radio Swindon, describing how this was not just a subject for national government, but was also a very real issue for local government. He pointed out that if the ID card bill goes through, Swindon Borough Council would need to buy all the hardware to interact with the ID cards, a costly business. He pointed out that the problem with terrorists is not identifying them, it’s catching them, and the ID card bill doesn’t help with that.
Leader of the council, Mike Bawden (Con, Old Town & Lawn) didn’t seem interested in talking to the no2id campaigners on the way in – odd, considering he is the leader of the Conservative group, one of whom was proposing the motion. The man from the BBC got quite excited about this, and went round interviewing the campaigners on their reaction to the incident.
Shortly before 6:30pm, mayor Ray Fisher (Con, St Margaret) arrived in his official car, graciously accepted a leaflet, and moved swiftly on to prepare to chair the meeting. Minutes later, the public gallery was opened and the campaigners took their seats along with other members of the public with an interest in council meetings, glad of the warmth after a couple of hours out in the cold.
The councillors gradually assembled in the chamber, whilst the campaigners studied them, trying to identify who was who. There was plenty of opportunity to do this once the meeting was under way, as the ID card motion was item ten on the agenda, preceded by some inscrutable procedural things, a party-political bun-fight over whether councillors deserved an increase in their allowance, and a rare moment of unity over a motion on excessive retail packaging.
Eventually, item ten came around and the councillors turned their attention to the ID card scheme. Peter Greenhalgh (Con, Freshbrook and Grange Park), proposing the motion, highlighted the cost of the scheme. £570 million according to home office figures or more like £14 to £20 billion if you prefer to believe the London School of Economics. He pointed out that councils will bear the cost of making their systems and processes compatible with the proposed ID cards. He also spoke of the security aspect of the huge database which would underlie the scheme. Speaking from a position of authority as an IT professional working with enterprise-scale databases, he pointed out that there is no such thing as a completely secure system, just a system which has not been compromised yet. He also cast doubt on the government’s ability to implement a system as vast and complex as this on time, within budget, and working first time – a reasonable doubt, considering past experience of systems such as Tax Credits and the Child Support Agency.
He reminded the council that Stella Rimington, former Director General of MI5, had stated that once someone had worked out how to forge an ID card, the whole scheme would be useless: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4444512.stm . As one of the signs held by the no2id group stated, if something can be manufactured, it can be forged. It’s only a matter of time.
Cllr Greenhalgh went on to assert that the scheme would not cut terrorism, illegal immigration or benefit fraud. But as well as not providing any of the supposed benefits, it would bring severe implications for civil liberties. He cited Lord Stoddart, former Labour MP for Swindon, now an independent Labour peer in the house of lords, who said that plans like this were undermining freedoms that our predecessors fought and died for in the Second World War.
Concluding, he said that any councillors who support ID cards will cost the people of Swindon a lot of money, and that they should be ashamed of themselves.
Wendy Johnson (Lib Dem, Old Town and Lawn) spoke in support of the motion, and cleverly got the first strike in the resumed party-political bun-fight by expressing her gladness that the Tories were now supporting Lib Dem policy. She agreed with Cllr Greenhalgh’s sentiments about civil liberties, and pointed out that violent crime was on the rise – surely all the money we’d need to spend on implementing the ID card scheme and national identity register would be better spent on the police force.
Des Moffatt (Lab, Western) was the first to speak against the motion. He stated that he supported ID cards, and not just for tribal reasons (this was presumably a reference to politicians’ tendencies to vote along party lines). He asserted that there was nothing to be afraid of from ID cards in a democracy, before railing against what he called the “chattering classes”.
Michael Barnes (Lab, Western) also spoke against the motion, describing its language as “apocalyptic”, and asserted that ID cards would provide ease and security in everyday transactions.
Justin Tomlinson (Con, Abbey Meads), who stood as a candidate for Swindon North in last year’s general election, took an irreverent pop at the ID card scheme, saying that the best way to combat criminals or terrorists with an ID card would be to throw it at them very, very hard.
One councillor, who we were unable to identify from the public gallery, pointed out that we already have lots of cards, we’ve started embedding micro-chips in our pets, and we’ll end up putting microchips into all the population for the same reason. With an air of inevitability, she concluded that she didn’t care, she’d be dead by then anyway.
Roderick Bluh (Con, Dorcan) said that the issue was not the ID card itself, it was that the government were planning to spend an awful lot of money on something which will not be very useful. He cited the record of government IT schemes for going over budget, estimating that one should take the government’s estimate of the cost of any such scheme and treble it. If we had that sort of money to spend, it would be better spent elsewhere.
Cllr Bluh also debunked one of the common arguments used by the pro-ID camp: that ID cards were compulsory during WW2 and that didn’t do us any harm. He pointed out that the ID cards in use at that time were made of paper, holding only what was written on them. By contrast, the cards being proposed by the government would include a chip holding all manner of biometrics, credit history and more, in a form which is not human-readable.
The ID scheme is not a valid counter-terrorism measure, and it would not have stopped the suicide bombers on 7th July last year.
Former Labour councillor Andy Harrison (Independent, Penhill) said that an ID card would offer another opportunity to identity thieves. He challenged the government message that all these new laws, including the ID cards bill, were necessary to protect our freedom. What about our freedom not to have to pay for this crackpot scheme? On the subject of expensive and unworkable technology, he pointed out that the council chamber we were sitting in had a fancy new voting system installed, but they still hadn’t managed to get it working, and were still relying on the age-old method of holding their hands in the air.
Phillip Steele (Lab, St Philips) said that he supported the ID card scheme, and asserted that the LSE figures for the cost of the scheme were inflationary and doubtful. He also said that the previous Tory government had also tried to introduce ID cards.
Garry Perkins (Con, Shaw and Nine Elms) turned the argument that law-abiding people will have nothing to fear from ID cards on its head. Instead, it is the criminals who don’t register who have nothing to fear. He denounced the scheme as a knee-jerk reaction to 7/7. Despite licensing restrictions on firearms introduced in recent years, gun crime is soaring, he said, and the crimes were not being committed by the law-abiding licensed gun owners, but by those who did not register for a gun license. The scheme was more about tracking law-abiding citizens than criminals, he concluded.
Stan Pajak spoke again, repeating the point he had made earlier in his BBC interview that the problem is not with identifying people who have been arrested, but with arresting them in the first place. He also expressed concern at the compulsory nature of the cards, and how if it became compulsory to produce them on demand, there would be a disproportionate targeting of darker-skinned people.
Concluding the debate, proposer Peter Greenhalgh asserted that it is not up to someone to prove who they are, it is up to the authorities to prove that they are not who they say they are.
The vote was taken.
In favour of the motion against ID cards? Hands were raised in the air, along the whole of the front bench where the Lead Members for this that and the other sit (including Mike Bawden, leader of the council, who didn’t want to chat with the no2id group), most of the back-bench members of the majority conservative group, the (not very large) Lib Dems group, and none of the Labour group as far as I could tell.
Against the motion? Hands went up in the Labour group’s block, although with quite a few abstainees, and I thought I saw a hand in the Tory block (or was that a new Labour plant sitting over there to confuse me?)
The hands were only raised long enough for the mayor to count, and the count of hands each way was not announced, nor are they usually recorded in the minutes as far as I know. The only official record is that the motion was passed. Observations from the public gallery indicated that the councillors voted mainly along party lines, in accordance with the policies of their national leaderships.
Lib Dems (as far as I could see, all three who were present out of their current five councillors) voted in favour of the motion.
Conservatives (who hold an overall majority with 33 councillors out of a council of 59, but not all were present) mostly voted in favour of the motion, with none against except for the unidentified hand mentioned above. Whether this is due to loyalty to the Cameron-era Conservative party’s new-found libertarian values or genuine concern about erosion of civil liberties, remains to be seen.
Independent Andy Harrison presumably voted for the motion, given his contribution to the debate, although he was well hidden in the back row, almost underneath the public gallery, beside another independent, Geraldine Frost (Freshbrook and Grange Park), who was a Lib Dem last time she stood for election. Cllr Frost did not speak during the debate and I have no idea how she voted. The third independent, Sinead Darker (Central) either was not present, or was somewhere invisible from the public gallery and didn’t say anything.
Labour (the largest opposition group, but not that large, with only 18 councillors out of 59) voted half-heartedly against the motion, with a clearly visible absence of hands where they would be expected within a Labour block. Could this be a sign of lifelong Labour activists getting uncomfortable with new Labour’s lurch to the authoritarian side of the political spectrum? Or could it be a sign that the Labour councillors just weren’t paying attention? This is something which was more clearly displayed during a party-political bun-fight over an earlier agenda item, when the leader of the Labour group Kevin Small (Western) had to shout at some of the other members of his group to pay attention to the vote instead of the papers in front of them.
With the motion passed, the final agenda item was the government’s new “respect” policy. With the party-political bun-fight set to continue in earnest, the no2id group quietly retired from the public gallery to a nearby pub for a celebratory pint.
The campaigners reflected on the odd nature of the current political situation. The ID card bill being pushed through parliament by a majority Labour government had been dealt a defeat by a conservative majority council. Were the situation reversed with a Tory government trying to introduce ID cards and a Labour majority council debating a motion opposing the scheme, the campaigners felt that the result would have been the same. Another reflection of the way in which local government politics is a backlash against the prevailing direction of national government.
Both of Swindon’s MPs, Anne Snelgrove (Lab, Swindon South) and Michael Wills (Lab, Swindon North) are supporters of the ID card scheme, and seem unwilling to be swayed from this position by their constituents. In a recent reply to a constituent’s letter urging her to oppose the bill, Anne Snelgrove stated “I am in favour of ID cards and more information on the debate can be obtained from the Home Office web site and www.parliament.uk. In future I may acknowledge your correspondence with a postcard which means I have read and accepted your concerns.” In other words, she represents the Labour party, not her constituents, and is not prepared to engage in further correspondence on this matter. The no2id group urge Swindon North and South constituents to ask these MPs to reconsider their position, given Swindon Borough Council’s motion, and the hammering that the bill is currently being given in the Lords. http://www.writetothem.com
The motion passed by Swindon Borough Council is due to be debated by North Wiltshire council at their meeting on the 21st February, proposed by one of the Lib Deb group and seconded by one of the Conservatives. Anyone living in the area covered by this council is encouraged to write to their councillors asking them to support the motion.
Finally, I leave you with this thought from one of the Swindon no2id group:
“The freedom of individuals to control their own identity will be irrevocably lost if this Bill is enacted. Remember the only secure computer is one that is turned off. I certainly do not want the government to control who does and does not have access to information about me.”
You can contact your representatives at local, national and European level via http://www.writetothem.com even if you don’t know who they are. Just enter your postcode and writetothem will find your representatives, and send your message by fax or e-mail, whichever seems to work best for that representative.
The Swindon Borough Council party-political bun-fight will no doubt continue in the letters page of the Swindon Advertiser: http://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/news/swindonletters/
Article by Lynda Warren of Swindon no2id published in the Western Daily Press: http://www.westpress.co.uk/displayNode.jsp?nodeId=145809&command=displayContent&sourceNode=145792&contentPK=13868281
Say no2id cards and the database state: http://wwww.no2id.net