Win­drush scan­dal re­vives the case for ID cards

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters to the editor - JULIET SA­MUEL NOTEBOOK

It’s rare for me to feel gen­uinely ashamed of this coun­try, but the Win­drush de­ba­cle is one of those mo­ments. We’ve all ex­pe­ri­enced the pow­er­less­ness of deal­ing with face­less bu­reau­cra­cies. I can only imag­ine how it feels if that bu­reau­cracy is your own gov­ern­ment threat­en­ing to de­port you from your own coun­try.

One rather amaz­ing rev­e­la­tion from it all is quite how lit­tle the Gov­ern­ment knows about its cit­i­zens. It did not know that many peo­ple live here le­gally with­out piles of doc­u­ments to prove it, it can­not dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween those peo­ple and il­le­gal migrants, and it doesn’t know how many it has “ac­ci­den­tally” de­ported.

This be­gan with Theresa May’s “hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment” pol­icy, a poorly named 2014 ini­tia­tive that started re­quir­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vice providers and em­ploy­ers to check the peo­ple they are serv­ing or hir­ing have the right le­gal status. This ac­knowl­edged that wel­fare sys­tems can­not hand out help to ev­ery­one with­out check­ing who they are and it is a stan­dard no­tion across Europe.

Un­like the UK, how­ever, cit­i­zens in the vast ma­jor­ity of Euro­pean coun­tries have gov­ern­ment-is­sued iden­tity cards. Bri­tain dab­bled with the idea of ID cards or an iden­tity data­base but the Coali­tion put it to rest in 2011, with Damian Green, then a Home Of­fice min­is­ter, claim­ing that the Gov­ern­ment was de­ter­mined to de­mand only “nec­es­sary and ap­pro­pri­ate” in­for­ma­tion from its cit­i­zens.

Hmm. Three years later, the same Gov­ern­ment passed leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing ev­ery­one to pro­duce doc­u­ments such as a pass­port or visa, bank statement, driv­ing li­cense or benefits letter to ac­cept es­sen­tial ser­vices like cancer treat­ment. Fair enough, you might say. But how could it make no pro­vi­sion for those who don’t have any of these doc­u­ments?

I was against ID cards when they were pro­posed a decade ago, think­ing it sin­is­ter that the state should hold such a data­base. But 10 years on, I feel rather out of date. We are spray­ing our data about ev­ery­where, all the time, via in­ter­net searches, GPS us­age, so­cial me­dia, bio­met­ric pass­port scan­ners and so on. The idea that the Gov­ern­ment doesn’t even have a list of its cit­i­zens now seems rather quaint.

An Ital­ian liv­ing in Lon­don once asked me which I thought was more in­tru­sive: go­ing to the bank and show­ing the man­ager a sin­gle, stan­dard gov­ern­ment-is­sued ID card to open an ac­count, or tak­ing in a gas bill, a water bill, driv­ing li­cense and pass­port. I saw his point. The current sys­tem makes liv­ing in the UK more of a has­sle and makes our Gov­ern­ment more in­com­pe­tent, in­tru­sive and, ul­ti­mately, in­hu­mane.

If the Gov­ern­ment needs proof of ci­ti­zen­ship be­fore it will de­liver ser­vices or let peo­ple work, then it also needs to pro­vide a straight­for­ward way to get that proof. The aim of wel­fare or em­ployer checks should not be to gen­er­ate a Kafkaesque doom loop in which to snare in­no­cent peo­ple like the Win­drush chil­dren or EU cit­i­zens who have lived here for decades. Re­vis­it­ing the idea of a ba­sic gov­ern­ment iden­tity check wouldn’t have solved Win­drush, but it would have brought the is­sue to light ear­lier and made clear, be­fore fel­low cit­i­zens lost their jobs or were de­nied cancer treat­ment, how lit­tle the Gov­ern­ment ac­tu­ally knows about its peo­ple.

The gath­er­ing of Com­mon­wealth gov­ern­ment heads in Lon­don has been over­shad­owed by Win­drush, but I have en­joyed the sight of un­fa­mil­iar flags on The Mall. One in par­tic­u­lar caught my eye. It fea­tures a hoe and a Kalash­nikov crossed over an open book. The gun rather shocked me. Surely only ter­ror­ist mili­tias like Hizbol­lah think it ap­pro­pri­ate to use a ma­chine gun in their mes­sag­ing? Then I re­con­sid­ered. The coats of arms of Euro­pean aris­to­crats and in­sti­tu­tions are stuffed full of weapons: swords, axes, pikes, canons. These sym­bols have an old-age charm, even though they were made and stand for ex­actly the same pur­pose as an M16.

Mozam­bique’s flag was taken from that of the Mozam­bique Lib­er­a­tion Front, later the Fre­limo po­lit­i­cal party, which fought against Por­tuguese colonists, mean­ing it was orig­i­nally a mili­tia sym­bol. Its par­lia­ment con­sid­ered re­mov­ing the gun in 2005, but since Fre­limo had a ma­jor­ity, it stayed. So there it is, hang­ing cheer­fully on The Mall.

Nearby, in St James’s Park, mat­ing season is in full swing for the birds liv­ing on the pond. Coots are ris­ing out of the water and bump­ing their chests to­gether, ducks are gnash­ing their beaks and song­birds are trilling hope­fully into the warm air.

The one mat­ing dance I can’t stand is that of the pi­geon. When he’s in the mood, a male pi­geon will not leave the fe­males alone. Along he’ll go, emit­ting that gar­gling, coo­ing sound, walk­ing right up to her and re­peat­edly puff­ing out his chest against her. The fe­males usu­ally try to ig­nore it, but the males will not be put off. Surely it’s time for an or­nitho­log­i­cal “me too” move­ment?

The Gov­ern­ment’s plan to ban plas­tic straws set off an­other un­in­tended-con­se­quences klaxon in my head. Many dis­abled peo­ple rely on plas­tic straws to eat and drink, and hav­ing them avail­able at cof­fee shops makes life eas­ier. The Gov­ern­ment has said it will ex­clude plas­tic straws needed for med­i­cal rea­sons. It would be best to think it all through be­fore the in­evitable head­lines about the Tories mak­ing life harder for the dis­abled.

FOL­LOW Juliet Sa­muel on Twit­ter @Ci­tysamuel; READ MORE at tele­graph. co.uk/opin­ion

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