Windrush scandal revives the case for ID cards
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 But 10 years on, I feel rather out of date.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.
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