Huhne: scrap ID cards and put 10,000 bobbies on the beat. Three reasons why he's wrong

by Stephen Tall on June 30, 2009

Amother day, another nail in the coffin of Labour’s increeasingly half-hearted attempts to force the British people to carry ID cards and enrtust their personal details to a national government database. The BBC reports:

Home Secretary Alan Johnson has dropped plans to make ID cards compulsory for pilots and airside workers at Manchester and London City airports. The cards were due to be trialled there – sparking trade union anger. … But Mr Johnson said the ID card scheme was still very much alive – despite Tory and Lib Dem calls to scrap it. He said the national roll-out of a voluntary scheme was being speeded-up – with London to get them a year early in 2010 and over-75s to get free cards.

Lib Dem shadow home secretary Chris Huhne wasn’t impressed:

This is another nail in the coffin for the Government’s illiberal ID cards policy, which will soon be so voluntary that only Home Office mandarins seeking promotion will have them. Airport workers did not want to be guinea pigs for this deeply unpopular scheme, which has now been reduced to nothing more than a second-rate passport.

“These expensive and intrusive plans should be ditched now. The vast amount of money would be far better spent on something that will actually fight crime and terrorism – ten thousand more police on the street.”

I’m all for Chris’s denunication of ID cards. But I do wonder about our oft-repeated line – first adopted, I think, when Simon Hughes was Lib Dem home affairs spokesman – that we would hypothecate the cash saved from ID cards for putting 10,000 more ‘bobbies on the beat’. Why do I wonder, I hear you ask?

Well, first, as I understand Vince’s line to be, the abolition of ID cards is one of the party’s plausible and cashable savings to help bring down projected government debt in the coming years. If that’s the case, we can’t also spend the saving on new police officers.

Secondly, the policy of putting 10,000 more ‘bobbies on the beat’ was adopted back when abolishing ID cards was held still to be a risky political view to take: Labour adopted them to be seen to be ‘tough on crime’, and were backed by the Tories. It was understandable, perhaps even canny, politics for the party to show that vanity projects like the ID card scheme have an opportunity cost, and that there is more than one way of being seen to be tough. But time has moved on. Opposing ID cards is now mainstream, and we don’t need to come up with a tough-sounding policy as political cover.

And thirdly, the policy is, at best, suspect. Is there actually any evidence that putting 10,000 more ‘bobbies on the beat’ would cut crime? Here’s what Guardian journalist Nick Davies had to say about the issue as long ago as 2003:

The heart of the whole problem is that the system makes a set of assumptions about the behaviour of regular offenders – that they are making rational calculations about their behaviour, that they are worried about getting caught and that they are fearful of being punished. Those assumptions may apply to the law-abiding majority, but they are overwhelmingly false in relation to the generation of adolescents, usually male, who are based in the wreckage of the old public housing estates, whose values have been distorted by a childhood in collapsing communities and broken families, and whose ambitions have been swallowed by the one style of life which offers them status, excitement, a decent income and the prospect of promotion – crime and particularly the blackmarket in drugs. These are the lifestyle criminals who commit 80% of recorded crime: patrols don’t inhibit them, detectives don’t catch them, prisons don’t deter them.

That article is one of four in-depth pieces Nick wrote challenging lazy media/political assumptions about how to cut crime on his insightful FlatEarthNews website under the ‘Media Falsehoods & Propaganda: Bobbies on the beat’ banner. It’s still recommended reading – even for Lib Dem shadow home secretaries.