Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Identity and the police

Paper tax discs for cars went in October last year, and now a bit of breaking news affecting drivers...from 8 June 2015, the paper bit (the 'counterpart') of your driving licence will be scrapped, and you can safely rely on just the plastic card. This is the link:

As you can see, in these days of Everything-On-The-Internet, it's been decided - a bit late in the day, in my own view - that the paper counterpart is unnecessary. If the police, or anyone official, wants to check whether you have any penalty points or recent motoring convictions, they will do it online. They won't be asking to see both bits of your driving licence. I note with interest that provided (a) they have a proper business reason, and (b) you give them permission, firms such as car hire companies will also be able to access your online record. Hmmmm.

I understand that there are quite a lot of people who still have the old-style 'green' paper driving licence, although surely nobody uses the original pre-DVLA 'little red book' type of licence pictured above (it's my own, from 1973, and still preserved in the Melford archives). When any of these diehards move house, or change their name, or just get old, they too will receive a modern plastic-card type of licence. And nothing more.

So when - this applies on or after 8 June next, not before - the policeman stops you in the proper performance of his duties, knocks on your car window, asks you to wind it down, and you say 'What's up, officer?' you must show show him only the plastic card.

You can give him a pleasant smile too, of course, but he will ignore all such blandishments, because - based on the registration mark of the car you are driving - he got all of the car and driver related data up onscreen in his patrol car before he pulled you over. And he'll have a mismatch. Supposing you are an unshaven male scumbag car thief and have stolen my beloved Fiona - how I know not, but let's suppose you have - you will face an awkward question from the officer as to why the picture on your plastic driving licence does not resemble that of the rightful driver, the fair damsel Miss Lucy Melford. That will be a poser for you, and no mistake. I hope you trip up badly, and are obliged to accompany the officer to the station.

In essence then the modern driving licence has gone one step further towards becoming an all-purpose ID card, especially as it is backed up with cloud data so readily accessible.

Do you remember the expensive plans of the Labour government prior to 2010 to introduce a National Identity Card? Apart from the political difficulties, it would have cost an awful lot, and even if it were in some way linked in with not only police and electoral data, but also NHS, income tax, benefit, passport and driving licence data, there would have been a dreadful amount of overlap across the board.

Furthermore, the entire concept was flawed by making it voluntary, a mere alternative to other forms of identification.

Plus the citizen had to pay for it, when the said citizen (including this one) might already possess a passport and a driving licence, both emptying the purse.

What were Labour thinking? What if almost nobody bothered to buy one? Or, if they ever became mandatory, what if huge sections of the population boycotted the scheme?

Or, bumbling human nature being what it is, we were each issued with our clever, biometric, multichip National Identity Card, but then mislaid it. As one might so easily. I mean, if the Gestapo are not asking to see your papers at every street corner, every time you go out, you tend to put such a card safely away, and then quickly forget where that safe place is. My goodness, what if benefit entitlement or hospital admittance depended on producing a card that had been lost? (Or stolen by a thief who knew its value to a terrorist?)

I do hope the concept of a 'National Identity Card' is now dead, on cost grounds alone, and won't be revived now that the UK economy is picking up. In a way, the Recession, bad as it was, stopped a lot of misjudged schemes like this in their tracks. A welcome side-benefit, I'd say.

I do see the argument that a comprehensive National Identity Card database is one way to keep track of who is in the country, but for that to work, you need stringent border controls with a vastly expanded staff to conduct all the checks needed to count individuals in and out. And then you are back to the immense cost of this. Labour's scheme was a response to terrorism, but registering everyone who lives here isn't the only possible response. I'd rather the money were spent on giving the police and their backup specialists more effective resources, that stand at a higher level than local police authorities.

And that's another thing. Why, in a small country like the UK, are there so many police forces? All slightly different from each other, and all struggling with individual budgets? What difference could it possibly make to the ordinary law-abiding person if - say - all the forces in England were merged into one force? And ditto for Wales? As happened in Scotland in 2013? Now that would save a few bob. To me, the police are the police; how they are organised matters not; normally I have no personal contact with them whatever. I do think that the merger of forces would promote a national standard of policing, much more appropriate to the travelling public's requirements and expectations. I'd like to think that if I need to consult a policeman on a trip to London, I will get the same attitude and service as if I would from one in Sussex, or Devon.

Putting this in another way, I don't know who my local bobby is. I don't know who is responsible for policing my village, whether it is one person or a team, nor who they are accountable to, nor what would actually happen if my house were suddenly the target of a vicious attack by some mob, and I made a frantic phone call for help. Nor what to really expect if abused or mugged when in Brighton - or Bath - or Birmingham. I wouldn't expect consistency, though.

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Lucy Melford