An exercise in non-sequiturs

IssueJune 2006
Comment by Liz Norman

The government's response to the recent Home Office debacles has become all too predictable over the last nine years - promise new legislation, promise the repeal of the poor old Human Rights Act, and promise an ID card. This is a reactive government, not a proactive one.

The first two of these promises are easily dealt with; new legislation is likely to have little or no effect, and repeal of the Human Rights Act will still leave us subject to the European Convention on Human Rights, from which there is no withdrawing unless we also leave both the EU and the Council of Europe. This leaves the ID Cards Act, introduced only very recently, and being held out as a panacea to Britain's woes.

Common threads

The thread which runs through these recent news stories about the Home Office is the concept of the legality (or otherwise) of the individual, and the entitlement to human rights -- declared to be universal, but increasingly under threat and seemingly conditional.

Take the foreign criminals story -- a classic account of administrative incompetence. Foreign nationals who had been convicted of a criminal offence and who should have been “considered” for deportation had reached the end of their sentences without the deportation process being followed through, and had duly been released. Why foreign criminals might be considered more likely to reoffend than British criminals is of course only a matter for speculation, and the ensuing hysteria was vastly disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Nevertheless, it is a cause for concern when those whose presence here is deemed “not conducive to the public good” are released with little or no monitoring. John Reid, commenting on 15 May in response to a Commons question, said:

”One of the many problems that we face is that at no stage of the whole process -- through investigation, arrest, inquiry, interview, trial, sentencing, consideration, custodial sentence and release -- as far as I have been able to determine in the limited time that has been available to me, is there any legal requirement on anyone to be responsible for discovering a nationality, or indeed, on anyone else, to volunteer their nationality. That is a not inconsiderable problem when it comes to dealing with foreign nationals. As my honourable friend says, this is one of the areas in which identity cards would be a huge boon.”

This was an exercise in non-sequiturs. From administrative failure to responsibility -- to ID cards. If it were true that at no stage is there a requirement to state nationality, then how could an ID card possibly help? If the subject does not have an ID card, as most of the deportees would presumably not have done, then their non-existent card will not be a boon to the Home Office. If they do have a card, then it will reflect whatever nationality they have given on first registration.

Fatal flaws

The same lack of logic applies to the newly forming storm cloud over the number of illegal immigrants in the UK. At Prime Minister's Question Time on 17 May 2006, the Prime Minister responded to a question over illegal migration with the astonishing assertion that:

”There are two things we need to do... First of all, we need to introduce electronic borders. And secondly, we need identity cards both for foreign nationals and for British nationals if we want to track people coming in and out of our country and know the identity of people here. That is what we need to do.

”Blair, as a lawyer himself, must be able to spot the fatal flaw in this argument. Illegal immigrants, by their very nature, do not comply with border controls. An electronic border will present no more of a barrier than a paper one, if the subject can evade the border altogether. Secondly, a person who enters deceptively, for example, stating that they are in the UK for a two-week holiday and then not returning, would not need an ID card, because they are in the UK for less than three months. What will be the magic which informs the authorities after three months that this person is still here? Well, none, actually, just as there is none at present. The efficacy of this scheme depends on the card actually being checked, regularly and thoroughly -- depends, that is, on everybody, foreign nationals and British nationals, meekly accepting daily checks of their papers in the interest of hoping to grab a few illegal immigrants along the way.

And this is the crux of the matter. Is it reasonable to curtail the rights and liberties of every UK citizen to try to curtail the actions of a few? The ID Cards Act 2006 provides that you will compulsorily attend an interview to establish your identity, at which no fewer than fifty details about you will be stored on the National Identity Register. Every time you use the card your movements will be stored. The information can be changed by the Home Office without your consent -- but it is your responsibility to ensure the accuracy of it. The information can be given out to anybody deemed “reasonable” by the Home Office -- again, without your consent. This is a serious intrusion into privacy.

Whose civil liberties?

Blair's argument for the curtailment of human rights and of civil liberties seems to be one of proportionality. He argued in an email exchange with Henry Porter, published in the Observer on 23 April 2006, that:

”Ultimately, for me this whole issue is not about whether we care about civil liberties, but how we care for them in the modern world... The question for me is: whose civil liberties?”

Can we, and should we, really separate people into those whose civil liberties should be respected and those whose civil liberties should not? The argument seems to be that Us, the decent hardworking citizens, will be in the former group, but Them, the foreigners, the criminals, the “illegals”, will be in the latter.

It takes no leap of understanding to realise that if through coincidence, bad judgement, or false accusation, a person is deemed to fall into the latter group, the consequences for that individual would be catastrophic. A common sense response to difficulties posed by “systemic failure” would be to improve the system, not to introduce a new, more complex system which will lend itself only to further failure. But even this would miss the fundamental flaw in Blair's and many others' reasoning. Legislation such as the ID Cards Act 2006, which aims to divide people into legal and illegal, worthy of basic rights or not worthy, is a price too steep to pay.

Related news

  • Children under the age of five are being fingerprinted at asylum centres amid fears that some families are trying to claim extra benefits. The Home Office says it is holding trials at asylum centres in Croydon and Liverpool. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants called it “intrusive action”. Source: BBC
  • Britain's human rights record has been heavily criticised in an EU report. Tony Blair's government is singled out for not falling into line with international commitments on efforts to curb human trafficking, on the protection of migrant workers and concerning child soldiers. Source: Independent
  • To have words with the Home Office on asylum and immigration matters, email:
  • For regularly updated news, and info on support campaigns, visit the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaign's excellent website: “>
Topics: Civil liberties