ID Cards: Why I am prepared to break the law

By Philip Johnston

Like most readers of this newspaper, I consider myself to be a law-abiding citizen who invariably accepts a decision of Parliament as the law of the land, however barmy or against my personal interests, because it has been democratically arrived at. But there are two matters on which I would be ready to take a stand and accept the consequences.

The first is that I will refuse to register on the Government’s ID card database.

The second is that I will withhold part of my taxes if Parliament agrees to finance political parties out of state funds.

On the issue of ID cards, I would find myself in the dock with, among many others, Shirley Williams, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, three leading Liberal Democrats who have said they will refuse to co-operate with the scheme because it is an unwarranted infringement of liberty.

On the second, I can count on little support from party politicians since it suits them to be funded by the taxpayer.

There would be penalties for breaking the law. But what would they be, exactly? When the ID Card Act was going through Parliament, the Government was careful not to make imprisonment a penalty for non-registration. In fact, it originally proposed to fine people £2,000 for failing to register but this was taken out of the Bill.

Now, the only penalty – civil, not criminal – is a £1,000 fine for failing to notify the authorities of changes in circumstances, such as a new address or marriage.

Lady Williams, a former Cabinet minister, said on BBC’s Any Questions? at the weekend that she would go to prison rather than carry an ID card; but the Government has been cleverer than that.

It foresaw the possibility of millions of ID martyrs and will not give them – us – that satisfaction.

The discussion on Any Questions? was predicated upon a mistaken belief that this law has still to be passed and could yet be abandoned by Gordon Brown.

But it has been on the Statute Book for a year.

It is true that another Act will be needed to make ID cards a universal requirement.

However, from next year, they will be compulsory for all non-UK nationals staying longer than three months and, from the following year, they will be automatically issued to UK citizens on renewal of a passport.

When one group has them, ID registration must either be extended to everyone or scrapped, otherwise we would have two classes of citizen.

From 2009, if you want a passport, you will be entered on to the ID register.

There is no choice. It will not, however, be a legal requirement to carry the ID card or to show it to a police officer in the street. Until such time as registration is made mandatory for everybody – which will not be in this parliament – the principal penalty for refusing to co-operate is that you will not be able to travel abroad.

What an extraordinary business. The Government would stop us leaving these shores if we refuse to sign up to its wretched ID database.

It so happens that there is an alternative open to me because I was born in Northern Ireland and so am entitled to an Irish passport. Yet, since I am British, I would not fall into the foreign national ID card category either.

When my passport comes up for renewal in a few years’ time, to avoid being a number on the ID database I shall become Irish – unless they introduce one as well.

More problematic will be how to avoid giving money to political parties for their campaigning.

Many people already donate to parties they do not support, for instance trade unionists who vote Conservative or Liberal Democrat but contribute to a political fund which is then handed over to the Labour Party.

Most of us are helping, indirectly, to finance Labour through the £10 million taxpayer-funded trade union ”modernisation” grant introduced two years ago and described by Opposition MPs as a ”bung” to the Government’s paymasters which is then recycled to the party.

We all pay, too, for the legitimate political activities of Opposition parties through the Short money system used to run their Westminster operations; and new £10,000 communications allowances for MPs have also been used for partisan leafleting.

We are already forking out for political campaigning, even if the mechanisms are blurred.

But what if this was formalised into transparent state support for political parties?

Such an idea was recently put forward during all-party talks on political funding.

A draft agreement prepared by Sir Hayden Phillips, the former Whitehall mandarin chairing the discussions, suggested a system whereby a voluntary £10 donation from an individual would be matched by £10 of taxpayers’ money.

Parties would also receive 40p for every vote they received at general elections.

These talks also considered imposing a £50,000 cap on donations and a statutory limit on expenditure.

But they collapsed amid acrimony and recrimination.

The Conservatives blamed Labour for refusing to countenance any cap on union donations; Labour said the Tories walked away from a possible deal because they wanted to keep Lord Ashcroft’s money flowing into marginal seats.

It is typical that these negotiations should founder on the rocks of self-interest, rather than because one or other party was unhappy at the prospect of state funding.

The arrogant assumption that the taxpayer should be fleeced further because the parties spend too much and are having trouble raising enough cash is breathtaking.

Furthermore, the notion that state support underpins political integrity is simply not sustained by the evidence.

If anything, public funding of political parties leads to greater venality, not less, as is evident from countries like Italy or France where campaigning is far more dependent on the taxpayer.

In any case, why should public funds reinforce the political hegemony of a few extant political parties? Who says Labour or the Conservatives have a right to exist that requires support from the taxpayer?

They should spend within their means or go out of business.

The alternative, that I should be required to help finance any party that will force me to sign up to an ID card scheme, beggars belief.