Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/04/21/met_chief_id_card_claims/

Not as guilty as he looks? The Met chief, Labour and ID cards

Spare a copper...

By John Lettice

Posted in Policy, 21st April 2005 08:17 GMT

Analysis Does Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair vote Labour? After his comments in support of ID cards last weekend quite a few people seem to think so, and he has deservedly come under fire for leaping into the political arena by supporting Labour's anti-terror programme in the midst of an election campaign.

Nor do stories about Tony Blair driving around in police cars with 'vote Labour' stickers help.* But there was, we think, more to what Sir Ian had to say than meets the eye. He was wrong, certainly, but his wrongness is in some senses understandable.

First of all, consider the likelihood that his comments were foolish, not calculating. The previous week had seen the conclusion of a major terrorism trial which - despite PR spin to the contrary - had exposed numerous failings in the security forces in general, and a couple in the Metropolitan Police in particular.

When Sir Ian was interviewed on the Sunday it was therefore to be expected that he'd be asked about what went wrong, and extremely likely that he would be asked about ID cards. The British police are, ahem, 'above politics', but senior police officers need a certain political deftness in order to keep up appearances. It is very much in the interests of the Metropolitan Police to seem to be above the political fray, and it is important (at least from the Met's point of view) that the Top Cop be sufficiently agile to avoid messing this up.

Sir Ian should therefore have seen this one coming a mile off and mouthed a few platitudes, but he didn't, and instead, the growing perception of the Met as the military wing of New Labour's Home Office was given a further heave (Charles Clarke heaved some more with this deplorable press release on Monday).

There are obvious problems with Sir Ian's recommendation of ID cards; he was wrong in suggesting them as a fix for the particular problem he was talking about, Kamel Bourgass' multiple IDs, and equally wrong in thinking they'd help massively with most of the other problems the Met faced in dealing with the case. That, however, is not to say that Sir Ian's problems don't exist.

Prior to his final arrest and conviction, Bourgass had been refused asylum and had absconded. The Met had arrested and prosecuted him for shoplifting during this period, but had let him go. It's been suggested that the police did not know Bourgass was a failed asylum seeker at this juncture, but that's not entirely true. When arrested Bourgass told police he was an illegal migrant but refused to give an address. The arresting officers contacted the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, which declined to send out anyone to interview him, but told police to issue a form which would allow the court to consider detention or deportation. In court, Bourgass was fined, but released without further contact with IND.

The actual problem here, you'll notice, is more the process than the data. Bourgass used at least four identities, and certainly didn't give the police the name that was on IND's records, but as he'd told police he was an illegal migrant IND should perhaps have been more interested in him than it was. IND's lack of interest will have provided some encouragement to the police not to pursue the matter, on the understandable grounds that they had better things to do than sort out problems for the immigration service. IND, on the other hand, will have been reluctant to go chasing out to Romford to check out some shoplifter they'd never heard of.

Sir Ian Blair clearly sees ID cards as a magic bullet that would fix problems of this sort. Bourgass (or whatever name he used for IND) would have an ID card, police would check his fingerprints against the database when they arrested him, and they would then have both the name he registered under and the fact that he was wanted by IND. It's worth noting here that a process of this sort, working to specification, would have the effect of 'automating out' some of the human failings that led to Bourgass' release in Romford. The notion of using automation to design the errors and omissions of humans out of the system underpins several of the IT projects the Government is currently engaged in, and this is worth bearing in mind whenever you're examining one.

Back in Romford, however, the ID card magic bullet wouldn't have been particularly relevant. As Register readers at least are aware, these days all asylum seekers are issued with biometric ID cards, and prior to these being introduced, IND was using a database of asylum seekers' fingerprints. Bourgass actually applied for asylum before either system was in place, so it's possible that his fingerprints weren't on record, but IND certainly will have data on all the more recent asylum seekers who have been issued with an ID card, and all the online checking the police should need in these cases is the ability to check IND's database. If he thinks about it, therefore, rather than demanding ID cards Sir Ian might find it better to concentrate on getting this access, and on getting police national computer systems that actually work into service.

Sir Ian's problems with ID go beyond the identification of asylum seekers, however. "What you and I would recognise as forgery just doesn't exist any more," he told Sir David Frost. "There are no more printing presses in basements. The documents that are being produced are exactly identical to the real documents, they're just unauthorised." Again he puts forward ID cards as the magic bullet, but again they would fail to deal with the specific problems faced by the Met.

Three of those cleared of conspiracy charges in the Bourgass case had false ID, and one claimed to have purchased his false French passport nearby, in the Blackstock Road, for £190. Muhammed Meguerba, now detained in Algeria, was also found to have a false French passport when he was briefly arrested in the UK in September 2002. Unsurprisingly, false ID is neither expensive nor difficult to come by in areas where there is a substantial migrant and asylum seeker community. Tightening up on asylum clearly exacerbates the problem, because at least some of those whose application fails will make it their business to acquire an alternative identity.

As Sir Ian says, the false documents these days are "exactly identical to the real documents", but the obvious snag with the ID card fix here is that a British ID scheme doesn't fix a non-British ID document, and doesn't make it any less convincing. If it becomes virtually impossible to forge a British ID document, then market forces will merely drive more business to false non-British ID, and the long term fix (universal biometric ID across Europe, and everybody's biometrics available to the security services) is a long way off, if it's even possible.

We can understand the fiendish nature of the ID problems Sir Ian faces, and will face for the foreseeable future, by looking at the specific issues associated with the threat of terror from Algerian groups. The current Algerian regime is effectively at war with Algeria's radical Islamists, who won an election there a few years ago but were cheated of the result. Algerian refugees arriving in the UK will therefore often have very real reasons for fearing for their lives if sent back. But at the same time some of them may also feel they have very real reasons for mounting attacks on the Algerian regime, and this means that the current Algerian regime has very real reasons for categorising them as terrorists.

Other people's civil wars don't half complicate matters for the security services, but it gets worse where the likes of Bourgass and Meguerba come in. In among the Algerian radicals will be people who sympathise with the aims of al-Qaida, and even some who've had some contact with al-Qaida. Distinguishing what is probably a small number of real contacts from a much larger number of 'friend of a friend' contacts will however be very difficult for the security services. At the same time, it's clearly in the interests of the Algerian security services to 'unearth' links between its own opponents and al-Qaida, so although some of the information coming out of Algeria perhaps ought to be acted on, that information can't be entirely trusted.

This situation, and similar ones elsewhere in the world, presents the police with problems without obvious solutions. Somewhere in among legal and law abiding migrant and refugee communities lie threats of indeterminate size, along with quantities of minor ID offenders. But the security services have very little knowledge of these communities, and have no real way to distinguish between international terrorist, regime opponent, minor ID fraud and law-abiding citizen or immigrant. The result is large numbers of arrests but a very small number of actual terrorism convictions. Earlier this year the Home Office claimed 17 convictions out of a total of 701 arrests, but even the 17 is suspect (as shown by an Institute of Race Relations report).

The people who're arrested without justification are obviously the primary victims here, but you could also see the police as being caught in the middle. Pressure for results in the War on Terror forces the arrests, and the police are then faced with the difficulty of proving guilt on the basis of intelligence information that turns out to be slim, or just plain wrong. The more arrests of innocent people there are, however, the more criticism the police face, the more wary the target communities get, and the bigger the police's problem gets. But if Sir Ian doesn't attempt to crack down on terror he risks being responsible for that British 911 the spooks keep telling him about, while if he cracks down too hard, he's helping build a police state.

In that sense it's understandable that he should start to wish for magic bullets, like an ID system that incontrovertibly tells him who everybody in the UK is, and new laws that make the people the spooks say are guilty look guilty when they actually get to court.

We should not however confuse understanding with sympathy or agreement. The magic ID system he (and indeed, the Government) wishes for doesn't exist, nor can it; ID systems can provide a measure of administrative convenience for the police, but Sir Ian shouldn't be confusing his own administrative convenience with fighting terror, and should be thinking in sufficient depth about his problems to understand where they actually lie.

Similarly, Sir Ian (and again, the Government) should be considering the possibility that, rather than letting people off because the law is inadequate, the courts are clearing people because they're not actually guilty, and/or because the intelligence underlying the prosecutions is of a very low standard. Dealing with this would be a much greater challenge for Sir Ian, because it would mean standing up and saying that much of the stuff his people are being fed is tenuous nonsense, and that the intelligence services should get a grip, stop scaring people, and stop making his job harder. It'd probably be better to say this to Charles Clarke than to Sir David Frost - we accept it wouldn't be easy, but it's a truth that somebody's going to have to point out to them, sooner or later. ®

* About those cars. Yes, the timing of the revelation makes them sound like Lady Bracknell's notion of carelessness, but there's an explanation of sorts. The Met is supposed to protect Tony Blair (even from that much-deserved little slap, the spoilsports), so there's a logic to putting him in Met cars with Met drivers. But obviously not cars with big signs on them saying "POLICE", and obviously in order for them not to stand out from the other cars in the New Labour election team, they ought to have some Labour campaign stickers too. So you can grasp the thinking behind it, although like us, some of you might recall the days when the presence of a very expensive and souped-up motor would stick out like a capitalist infiltrator in a People's Party convoy.

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Clarke calls for ID cards after imagining huge poison terror ring
Labour promises 'voluntary' compulsory ID card
General election debate misses purpose of ID cards