Asked on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme why Labour had not told voters that the cards would be compulsory. He replied: "Actually, we did. During the parliamentary process that the Bill went through before the General Election, we were absolutely clear on this point.
There was no doubt about the link with the passport. We said all along that the right way to proceed would be at the time when we introduced the biometric passport, when fingerprints were introduced into the passport, that would be the right time to introduce the clean National Identity Register."
It's such a pity that we had an election, then, when the Labour party did what it does best and offered a mildly self-contradicting statement which made no mention of eventual compulsion. From the 2006 Labour manifesto:
We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, and backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports.
This could mean both a) that a person can choose to surrender biometric data during the course of acquiring a new passport or b) if you renew your passport you will 'voluntarily' (i.e. involuntarily) join the national identity register - depending on your reading preferences. As the Register pointed out at the time:
The "voluntary" ID card returned yesterday with the publication of the Labour's Party's election manifesto, but it's once again rather difficult to find out what's voluntary about it. According to the wording: "We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports." So, what's voluntary here?
A Labour Party spokesman told us first: "It's voluntary. You don't have to carry it." This seemed doubtful to us, but we asked if, in that case, you were still going to be registered for an ID card when you registered for a passport. He said he'd call us back.
Later, he explained that ID cards would initially be "piggybacking" on passports, and that you would be offered an ID card along with your passport. Which, we suggested, you could always refuse? But you'd still be registered for an ID card, right? Possibly. He conceded that the data collected for passports would be pretty similar to the data collected for ID cards, but pointed out that "we're not at the stage of having worked out all the details of how it would work. But it would work at passport renewal."
Rather less than being 'absolutely clear', no? Even if we accept the parliamentary debate line rather than the election campaign language, there's still a difference between the sales-pitches of 'initially on a voluntary basis' and 'eventually compulsory.'
The other bit of wriggle room - illustrated in the Register story above - is over the meaning of the word 'compulsory': yes, you have to have an ID card but no, you don't have to carry it. Yes, you'll need it to access a range of services you've paid for through tax, but you can choose to inconvenience yourself or go without.
Labour didn't campaign for an 'eventually compulsory' card because they knew it would be unpopular, sensibly choosing the more voter friendly 'initially voluntary' line instead and hoping no-one would notice the gradual slide between the two - a slide that has continued despite a mountain of objections on the grounds of cost, effectiveness and liberty.
The sales-pitch for identity cards has never, ever been clear but has instead taken the shape of endless question dodging and distraction. To shamelessly quote myself:
Rule one of the PR handling of identity cards seems to be if you can't defend the substance of an issue, don't talk about the substance of the issue. This strategy is dependent on changing the subject - so if the cost is criticised, talk about security; if security is criticised, talk about identity theft, if that doesn't work, switch to benefit benefit fraud, and then you're back round to talking about security of the state without ever addressing any specific criticisms.
Devoted followers of Burnham (Burnhamites? Burnhamistas? Andy's Acolytes?) will remember that this isn't the first time when he has been caught stuffing himself with the porky-pies.. uh.. offering statements of questionable veracity. There's the time when Dame Stella Rimington (nee MI-5) pointed out that the information in the national identity register would be partly based on existing documents which are easy to forge.
Rather than explaining how this problem might be confronted, Burnham chose denial - arguing that the card will be totally secure because the biometric data will be used, and thus missing the point about initial identification.
Then there was the claim that identity fraud costs the economy £1.7 billion each year, shown by various people to be a largeish portion of fresh steaming horse shandy. The problem then wasn't so much the inflation of the figure but the apparent ignorance of why 'customer not present' and other credit card frauds will be largely untouched by the national identity register.
To describe any part of the ID card mess as 'absolutely clear' is either laughably delusional or grossly dishonest. The problem with Burnham is that it's hard to decide which applies.
(cross-posted to RS)