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This week's absurd booster for ID cards came from this week's Home Secretary John Reid, in answer to a question from Ian Lucas MP (Lab, Wrexham) on Monday.

"Is not the most fundamental issue relating to overseas prisoners the identification of those prisoners in the first place?" wittered Lucas. "At present, neither the police nor the Prison Service have any way of verifying the information that is given to them by the individuals who present themselves. Is that not the best argument yet for having an identity register?"

As it happens, neither of these is particularly true. The matter of the thousands of escaped foreign homicidal maniacs (as elements of the popular press might put it) certainly does have a relevance to ID cards, but Lucas's question sails past it. Reid's answer follows suit, and lobs in some extra bonkerness for good measure:

"My hon. friend is absolutely correct. 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 hon. friend says, this is one of the areas in which identity cards would be a huge boon."

Police throughout the UK will no doubt be relieved to hear from the Home Secretary that they are in point of fact under no obligation to find out who it is they've just nicked, but we feel sure that, perversely, they will continue to see doing so as one of their top ten tasks after an arrest. Breaks the day up for them, we suppose.

But shall we take this one from the top? Last week's Home Secretary, the late, unlamented Charles Clarke, lost his job after it was revealed that over several years and during the watches of three Labour Home Secretaries, 1,023 non-UK citizens who should have been considered for deportation at the end of their sentence had in fact been released from prison back into the community without this consideration having taken place. The Home Office was initially unable to lay hands on most of these, including goodly numbers who would have been released on licence, and who therefore in theory should have been monitored by the Home Office.

We should note that second issue in passing, because if the Home Office is losing track of non-UK ex-offenders who may or may not be dangerous maniacs, it's probably also been losing track of rather larger numbers of UK citizens who may or may not be maniacs. 'Fessing up about the 1,023, issuing regular bulletins about how many of them haven't been nabbed, and regularly describing Clarke as an honourable man who did the decent thing (code for 'it's all his fault anyway'), therefore helps Reid to keep people from asking about far bigger numbers elsewhere in his systemically dysfunctional empire.

But for our purposes, the systemic dysfunction surrounding overseas offender removals will be quite enough to go on with. The prison service, recent reports have suggested, is frequently given little information concerning individual prisoners when they first arrive in the system. So at the beginning of sentence it may not necessarily know the precise identity and nationality status of the prisoner. In most cases it will have established these (or something that, for the sake of argument, is going to have to do) in fairly short order - it will certainly have done so prior to the end of sentence in all but a vanishingly small proportion of cases. One might also puzzle over how, if it were the case that we didn't know who people were, we would nevertheless know that we should be deporting them - do we just have some kind of gut feeling that there are 1,023 of them?

How could it come to pass that the prison service is given minimal information on new arrivals? If we consider the route the prisoner took to the front gates of HMP Wandsworth or whatever, it becomes pretty clear that identification doesn't get much better than this. On arrest, ID is one of the first things the honest copper will try to establish, and even without co-operation, a firm identity for non-UK citizens will frequently be forthcoming fairly early on. IND (Immigration & Nationality Directorate, a Home Office operation John Reid may be familiar with) will as a matter of routine be informed if there are likely to be immigration considerations. In a systemic failure the Home Office prepared earlier, this happened when would-be ricin terrorist Kamel Bourgas was arrested for shoplifting, IND didn't show up, so the police let him go.

During investigation and the pre-trial process, police will nail down ID further and check the Police National Computer for previous offences, while IND will (possibly) determine immigration status. Certainly, if prisoners turned up neatly tagged with an ID card and a national identity register entry then the prison service would find it very helpful; but think, Mr Reid - how the blazes would the information have got onto this hypothetical national identity register in the first place? Yes, that's right, it would have come from information collected from police and IND, fed through to the Home Office, and subsequently made available to the prison service.

Which is pretty much a description of what should already be happening, but isn't. As we say, identification doesn't get much better than it does in these cases. You've got IND, police, and the legal system all with the time and the motivation to figure out conclusively who it is they've got - they're not necessarily going to get to the absolute truth, but they're almost certainly going to get as close, or closer, than the national identity register would. The problem here is not that the system doesn't know who they've got and who they should be monitoring or deporting on release, because the system does know this - it's that the system can't even share the information adequately with itself.

The system, up until the day before it releases the prisoner without considering deporting them, even has the subject's address. Might we propose some kind of prisoner identity register as a kind of alpha test prior to the really big cockup, er, national register? This might look like an excessively modest project, but you can fairly swiftly see how, if it were approached as a classic Government IT project, it would turn into an expensive catastrophe several years down the line. The prison service obviously (no, you're right, but let's pretend...) has files on all of the prisoners it's currently housing, right? So if we start with this, we have a basic prisoner database which needs to be kept up to date with court records (a pre-existing messed up IT project), police data (somewhat messed-up and delayed IT project), probation service records (currently undergoing massing morale-busting restructure) and IND data. That would be the IND that's currently horrifying MPs by being unable to supply data on practically anything you'd care to name.

The problem, essentially, is not that the data is broken - in these cases at least the data exists, is of relatively good quality, and is somewhere in the system. Clearly, it is the system itself that is broken, with its components utterly unable to organise the data they own, and therefore unable to exchange data meaningfully with other parts of the system. So, under these circumstances, what price your national identity register? ®

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