NOT long after the attack on the Twin Towers, the idea of a national database was promoted to the sceptical citizens of the UK on the basis it would act as a panacea for terrorism and identity and benefit fraud. Though civil liberties groups warned that the database and the identity cards that were to accompany it were an infringement of people’s privacy and that storing large quantities of information in one place was fraught with danger, and though the Tories and the Liberal Democrats opposed it, Labour was determined to press ahead.
There followed much wrangling as the Bill bounced back and forth between the Commons and the Lords, with amendments being passed and then reversed and then passed again. Finally, on 30 March, 2006, a compromise plan finally gained Royal Assent and was set in motion, only for the Tory government to scrap it and destroy the database when it got into power in 2010.
This is an old story, but, you may think, a salutary one. What government – having witnessed this fiasco – would want to start off down the same path again? And yet, despite having opposed the UK government’s plans on grounds of cost and ineffectiveness, the SNP appears hell-bent on doing just that. This time round, the party is trying to sell the idea of a national database (albeit without identity cards) as a means of tracking Scottish taxpayers when Holyrood’s new income tax raising powers come into force in 2016, and to make it easier to find missing children. The scale of the exercise is more limited – an extension of access to, and the contents of, the existing NHS Central Register, as opposed to the biometric database Labour proposed, but the principle is the same and it is provoking a backlash from groups who believe this is the latest move by an authoritarian government which wants to exercise control over every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Of particular concern is the fact 120 organisations – including the Forestry Commission and Quality Meat Scotland – would be given access to it, effectively turning people’s Unique Central Register Number into a national identity number.
The Information Commissioner’s Office is worried producing a national identity number for every individual may breach EU privacy laws and the Open Rights Group Scotland has said the move could not help but change the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state.
At the same time, the proposed scheme seems to do little to address HMRC’s concern that identifying Scottish taxpayers in the run-up to 2016 will be a challenge; an individual’s status depends on the amount of time spent in the country, not on where they are registered to vote or where they own a property. John Swinney may be right that for every 1 per cent of the Scottish taxpayer base HMRC cannot identify, the Scottish Parliament stands to lose more than £50m, but it’s far from clear a national database will solve the problem.
Setting up such databases is expensive, and there is no evidence they have reduced crime in the countries which already have them, as Minister for Community Safety Fergus Ewing seemed to accept back in 2009. “There is little tangible evidence to suggest ID cards will deliver any of the benefits Westminster claim,” he said. “It is far from certain they will do anything to safeguard against crime and terrorism, and there are real concerns that the cards and the identity database could increase the risk of fraud, not reduce it.” However basic the biographical information stored in the short term, there is the risk that further down the line it could be expanded and used for sinister purposes: to monitor legitimate activity or stigmatise individuals.
Long before the coalition wrecked his credibility, the debate over ID cards gave Nick Clegg perhaps his finest moment. He said that if identity cards were made compulsory he would break the law, by refusing to provide his details. As, initially, they were voluntary for everyone but foreign nationals, he never got to put his resolve to the test.
Last week, it was time for Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie to take up where Clegg left off. He wanted the Scottish Government to ensure the plans for the national database were included in primary legislation, so they would have to be subjected to full parliamentary scrutiny, but lost by three votes. Though Swinney has said he is willing to examine whether all 120 groups really need access, it seems likely the SNP will now move forward, despite the combined opposition of Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Greens and two independent MSPs.
This is disturbing in its own right: any development which threatens civil liberties ought to be the subject of more public debate than we have heard. But it also highlights a wider problem. With a majority government, and no second chamber, it is possible for controversial measures to pass without much scrutiny. As centralisation has gone hand in hand with devolution, there is also, arguably, a lack of scrutiny with regard to public bodies such as the SQA and Police Scotland.
If, as seems likely, the SNP consolidates its position in the 2016 Holyrood election, then it is going to be increasingly important to find ways of keeping it in check. In the meantime, we need to be vigilant; to ensure the implications of moves such as the setting up of a national database, which involve big cultural shifts, are fully discussed. And that national ID cards aren’t ushered in through the back door.
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