MP arrested

The BBC reports “cross-party fury” today at the arrest of Conservative MP and Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green; apparently Mr Green’s arrest followed on from that of a Home Office civil servant alleged to have leaked documents to the MP, who then passed them to the press.

Formally speaking, Mr Green was arrested “on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office”

According to this BBC News article, these are among the leaks thought to have been at the heart of the incident.

  • The November 2007 revelation that the home secretary knew the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it.
  • The February 2008 news that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in the House of Commons.
  • A whips’ list of potential Labour rebels in the vote on plans to increase the pre-charge terror detention limit to 42 days.
  • A letter from the home secretary warning that a recession could lead to a rise in crime.

As you can read in this piece in the Guardian, there’s no shortage of comment from other parliamentarians about the many constitutional and procedural questions raised by Mr Green’s treatment at the hands of the police.

Among them, some of the most serious must surely concern the linked issues of proportionality and the confidentiality of exchanges between an MP and his constituents.

The police are said to have seized Mr Green’s mobile phone and computer, and searched his parliamentary offices and both his homes. This will have put into their hands a vast amount of information, much of which must surely be confidential, and most of which can have little or no relevance to any police enquiry into the leaks.

After all, by definition, the leaked information is in the public domain, and presumably Mr Green is known to have been the person who leaked it.

That charge of “conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office” seems a strange one, too. After all, if it’s enough to get Mr Green snatched off the streets by counter-terrorism officers for disclosing information the government doesn’t dispute – but finds embarrassing – why hasn’t it been invoked in previous cases of “misconduct in a public office”?

Mr Mandelson’s dodgy mortgage, and Mr Prescott’s misuse of government furniture would seem to have been prime examples.

Holyrood gives Labour MSPs chance to practice misdirection

The Scottish parliament has voted on a motion rejecting UK government plans for a National Identity Scheme, saying that the £5bn could be better spent than on a measure which ‘would threaten privacy and civil liberties without making people safer or reducing the terrorist threat’.

The Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrat and Conservative members appear to have united behind the motion, which was passed by 69 votes to 0, with 38 abstentions. According to this BBC article, it was left to Labour MSP Richard Baker to defend the plans in these terms:”There’s nothing extreme or unusual in the introduction of ID cards and the kind of data which will be on them.”

If the plans themselves don’t worry people, this kind of nonsense should. It is not usual for UK citizens to have all their fingerprints taken. It is not usual for UK citizens’ fingerprints to be recorded in a government database. It is extreme for counter-terrorism to be used as the justification for a government credential.

And, as it seems impossible for some supporters of the Scheme to take on board, the Scheme is not just the cards and the data which will be on them. It is also the Register, the data which will be held in that, and the uses to which that Register will be put. Isn’t it time to be straight with the voters and their elected representatives?

National ID Scheme remarketed

Hats off to Phil Booth of the No2ID campaign for doing the “Emperor’s New Clothes” thing and ‘calling’ Jacqui Smith on her assertion that some people can’t wait to get their hands on a UK ID Card. She may be right, of course. There may indeed be people clamouring to pre-register for an ID Card. There are also some people who can’t wait to get their hands on some cannabis, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for them to do so.

I have probably taken part in more of the consultative process than the average British punter, having been to one of the Crosby Review workshops, a one-day workshop run by Kable on behalf of the DBERR, one of the NIS ‘roadshow’ consultations, one of the workshops run by the Enterprise Privacy Group on behalf of the IPS, and so on and so on…

I can honestly say that in only one instance can I remember anyone saying “the sooner the better, where can I get mine?” – and that was someone who had already rather torpedoed his own credibility by coming out with that old chestnut “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear… that’s what I always say”. He didn’t quite add “when I was a lad, anyone who had something to hide was taken out and publicly birched…” but I don’t suppose if would take more than a couple of halves of mild before that came out too.

The fact that Phil is unconvinced may have some roots in the Home Secretary’s recent response to that whole consultation exercise. According to the structure of that document, the two most pressing recommendations of those consulted were that the Government should:

– do more to communicate the details of the Scheme;
– do more to explain how the Scheme will benefit businesses.

With respect, the first of those is only a sensible objective if the Scheme is aligned with what people want, rather than what the Government is prepared to tell them. Telling someone something objectionable is not a substitute for making it less objectionable. Not that presentation isn’t important, I hasten to add. In case you’re in any doubt about the importance of positive PR, here’s an indication of the perception “out there” of UK public sector performance as a data custodian. I’m not saying this perception is accurate in every respect, but unfortunately when one’s talking about perception, that isn’t the critical factor.

And the second is precisely the question which the Crosby Review was established to examine. Its conclusion? That there was no clear and overriding commercial case for businesses to use the Scheme, except as a very clearly circumscribed service to establish the uniqueness of a given citizen. It is somewhat depressing to see how little effect that finding has had either on the structure and purpose of the Scheme, or with the marketing communications coming out about it.

Even in those areas where communication with the citizen is being beefed up (for instance, with this white paper introducing the scheme and explaining how it will work in practice), some of the old thinking and old fallacies seem to persist. A case in point: the first working example the paper gives is of a young woman going out for a drink in the evening and being invited to prove that she is over 18. She happily hands over her ID card, and is “relieved that she no longer has to hand over documents with her address on them to prove her age.”

Except that this elegantly glides past a couple of salient facts:

– first: she has not simply proved that she is over 18: she has revealed her date of birth, which is not at all the same thing. What the Scheme giveth with one hand, the Scheme taketh away with the other;

– second: if (unusually among her compatriots) this young lady wishes to prove her age without disclosing her address, she could of course make use of her passport, her driving licence, or – anticipating the objection that she perhaps does not have either of these – her “Prove It” card or (taking a shocking leap into the 21st century) her Equifax Over 18 digital credential.

There’s only one interpretation one can realistically put on the Home Office documents, and those are that the substance of the scheme remains the same, the policy thinking more or less unaltered by the Crosby report, the consultation process and several years’ experience of how public sector data management can go wrong. Only the presentation seems to have changed.