The Northern Ireland Human Rights Council’s two-day conference, Building a Human Rights Culture in Northern Ireland, starts today. The NIHRC says its role is “to ensure that the human rights of everyone in Northern Ireland are fully and firmly protected in law, policy and practice.” However, does it practice what it preaches? The most significant assault by government upon our human rights is the ID Card Scheme and National Identity Register. Human rights group Liberty believes it has the potential to “…change our society and the way we live, forever.” What does the NIHRC think of this issue? ANSWER: Nothing. The ID card scheme was first proposed in the Labour Party’s manifesto in 2001. A public consultation paper on Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud was launched in July 2002. In November 2003, the then Home Office Minister, David Blunkett confirmed the government’s intention to introduce such a scheme and subsequently published a draft bill. The Home Office Select Committee then carried out a consultation on the draft bill reporting in July 2004. The Home Office response to the Select Committee report was published in October 2004. At its launch, David Blunkett stressed the degree and importance they attached to consultation around the scheme:
“Pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation are a key part of that approach, allowing us to continue to refine and improve plans for the operation of the scheme to ensure it is as effective and efficient as possible.”
Despite the long period this legislation was developed over and a number of Home Office and parliamentary consultations, there is no record of any submission by the NIHRC on the issue of ID cards and national identity regsiter in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005. Also, a perusal of the submissions shows they did manage to raise concerns about other Home Office UK wide legislation and later express concerns. They even contributed to a charities consultation that only applied to England and Wales and specifically sought the opportunity to make a submission.
In only one submission is a passing reference made to ID cards. In its comments on the draft Race Equality Strategy it says:
28. The second category includes those legislative and policy initiatives for which the Home Office has responsibility and which are applicable across the United Kingdom…anti-terrorism legislation and the proposed introduction of identity cards. While beyond the remit of the Northern Ireland Administration these policies have obvious and crucial implications for race equality in Northern Ireland.
The submission even has the cheek to complain that:
…there is no mention in the Race Equality Strategy of how members of the Race Equality Forum can communicate their views to the Home Office, nor any indication that the Home Office is keen to hear of the effect its policies may have specifically in Northern Ireland. The Commission is aware that a representative of the Home Office has been asked to sit on the Race Equality Forum, and that the OFMDFM cannot compel the Home Office to take any action in connection with the Strategy. However, it is not sufficient that the OFMDFM simply absolves itself of responsibility for policies and legislation emanating from the Home Office. It ought to instead work to ensure that a representative of that Department with senior rank attends the Forum meetings and acknowledges the views expressed by its members.
At that stage the NIHRC had done nothing for two years but somehow its the Home Office’s fault?!?
What about the Commissioners? A search of the NIHRC website shows it wasn’t until the 78th meeting, in June 2005, almost three years after the first Home Office consultation, that the matter was discussed. Even then it did not adopt a position, it decided:
6. Identity cards (HRC 78.5)
6.1 The Commission has not established a final position on Government proposals for the introduction of biometric identity cards and an accompanying national identity register. A briefing paper was considered and further information will be discussed in due course.
6.2 It was agreed that the Commission needs to develop an initial view prior to that discussion. This policy perspective will be developed further and discussed at the next Commission meeting.
However, this belated interest did not last long. Two months later, at its 79th meeting, in August 2005 it decided:
2.5 The pace of Government proposals for the introduction of biometric identity cards and an accompanying national identity register has slowed (paragraph 6.2 of the minutes of the last meeting refers). It was agreed, therefore, that there is no immediate imperative for the Commission to develop its own policy perspective on the issue.
The present Commission has held no further discussion upon the issue. Since then the enabling legislation has become law and the collection of data for the National Identity Register has begun and unsafe biometric passports introduced.
In 2006 the NIHRC made 15 submissions – 3 on prisoners rights, 6 on policing and criminal justice, 4 on itself and associated work and 1 on victims and 1 on adoption. In one year, prisoners rights merit 3 submissions but an issue that effects everyone does not merit 1 over 3 years. Human rights for everyone?