14 April, 2009


But of course ID cards are entirely voluntary, Sir

A Daily Mail columnist, it would appear, has had a bit of a run in with the authorities. Suzanne Moore didn't notice when her Oyster card failed to register correctly on the bus's card reader and she was subsequently caught out by a team of ticket inspectors. Not an unfamiliar scenario. Patchy reliability coupled with paucity of user-verifiable feedback was one of the reasons I've never used PAYG Oyster cards.

Fair enough, she was banged to rights. But when you've got past that enjoyable little pulse of tittersome Schadenfreude at some smug journo getting the same treatment as the rest of us, take a look at this bit.
... They wanted ID. I produced a credit card, a Press card, a business card for this newspaper and, to top it all, a Matalan card. How amazingly normal could I be? But it wasn’t good enough. By now I was mystified. And late. And annoyed. ‘We want a driving licence or a passport.’

‘Do most people get on the bus with a driving licence?’ I asked. Another guy came over and said ‘Is she being difficult?’ Apparently I was. So the real police had to come and sort me out.
Now, as someone who probably spends rather too much time in pubs, it has not escaped my notice that bar staff are punctilious about checking the age of younger customers to confirm that they are at least 18 years old. Hardly surprising, given that individual bar staff can be fined £1000 for serving an under-age customer. But what confirmation of age is acceptable? Well, with some exceptions (for example, Wetherspoons support the Citizencard scheme), most pubcos go for "driving licence or passport". Not "driving licence or passport or something of equivalent credibility", but "driving licence or passport only" — or bugger off.

Another anecdote, from personal experience. When I left the employ of MegaCorp Inc early last year, I found myself in the position of having to pay for my own mobile phone calls. MegaCorp had its faults as an employer, but it took a relaxed and pragmatic attitude to a limited level of personal use of company-issued mobiles. I am not of those generations which get withdrawal symptoms and panic attacks if they are not in permanent voice contact and company-issue phones met both my business and my modest personal needs satisfactorily for 15 years. (My first mobile was an analogue Ericsson jobbie with a battery an inch thick. It grew too hot to handle after 10 minutes' talk. That alone kept conversations short and to the point. What all that rampant RF has done to my brain is something I prefer not to think about.)

MegaCorp kindly allowed me to keep my old number when I left and, armed with a friend's cast-off handset, I betook myself to a branch of O2 to sort out a SIM-only contract. Everything went well. Details registered. Regular credit card payment set up. On-line creditworthiness check completed. (For £15 a month, FFS?) And then they wanted ID. Why's that? Standard procedure, Sir. What sort of ID? Passport or driving licence, sir. I see. Any alternatives acceptable? No sir, passport or photo driving licence only, sir. Otherwise no deal.

So the contract went into the shredder. The shop assistant, who had the good grace to be embarrassed, assured me that all the other service providers did the same thing. Whether that was true or just face-saving bullshit I have no idea; I didn't put it to the test. I popped into the nearest T-Mobile shop and bought a PAYG SIM, which, surprisingly, you can still do anonymously in this bloody country. No names, no pack drill, no credit check, no passport, no driving licence. Just hand over a grubby fiver for the starting top-up and off you go.

Let's go through those cases again, shall we?

If you are caught without a valid travel ticket, it is not unreasonable that you should be required to provide satisfactory confirmation of your identity and address if you choose not to pay or are unable to pay the penalty fare on the spot, so that the authorities may with confidence find you and mulct you for your sin in the fullness of time. Mickey Mouse and that ubiquitous Polish miscreant Prawo Jazdy really must not be allowed to get away with taking the piss like they do. Fair enough. But "satisfactory confirmation" needs to mean whatever actually and reasonably works, not "what we find convenient". If you do settle the fine there and then, I suppose you could argue it both ways. On balance, we are not talking about murder here and I'd say that should be the end of the matter.

As to under-age drinking, yes bar managers and staff need to be satisfied that the customer is old enough. Whether you can do this as a matter of discretion and judgment or require something more formal and definitive is perhaps more a function of the Government's draconian approach to enforcement than anything else, but if you do need to go the formal route, then reasonable flexibility of proof and schemes like Citizencard should be universally supported.

As to the mobile phone thing, it annoys me to this day. First of all, why the creditworthiness check? I recently spent £800 in a shop, paid by card — no ID, no name and address, no nothing — and walked off with the goods there and then. It's not even as if I was asking O2 to trust me with an expensive handset, the cost of which had to be amortized over the term of a contract, during which time I might skip the country or something. It was a month-by-month SIM-only deal. In the event of default, they could have centrally disabled that SIM with a couple of keystrokes. There was no risk. But that's just the credit aspect. What of the ID requirement? Precisely what business is it of O2 who the fuck I am? For purposes of payment the credit card detail should suffice; beyond that it really is none of their business that I am in fact Michael J Mouse Jr, or Richard Head, or John Thomas, or, heaven forfend, Aloysius Windowlicker III.

As it happens, the PAYG alternative was not only available but given my modest requirements, actually the better deal. But what if anonymous PAYG had not been available? (I'm frankly surprised that it still is). Or what if my usage requirements were such that a proper contract represented a significant saving?

So what's the big deal, you ask? Everybody's got a passport or a driving licence. Most people have both. What's the problem with showing them when asked? It's not some kind of personal affront. Hey, it just makes life so much easier for everybody.


I don't have a driving licence because I don't drive. Apart from anything else my eyesight is at best marginal for driving — I don't know if they still do the "number plate at 25 yards" thing, but last time I tried, even with my specs, I could only pass by inspiried guesswork. I live in an urban environment with good public transport and I manage quite nicely, thank you. On those occasions where private transport is needed, a friend or a professional can be called upon.

As to passports. Well, I have had passports in the past, but they have long since expired. I haven't been out of the country in at least 15 years and I have no particular interest in doing so in the foreseeable future. I no longer foresee any business requirement for foreign travel and, while a Eurostar trip to the near continong is tempting, recreational travel by aeroplane further afield holds no attraction whatever. I'm not scared of flying, it's just a crap way to travel and, taken all in all, a sufficient disincentive. Your mileage, as they say, may well vary. But why should I be required to apply for a document I don't otherwise need for its primary and entirely legitimate purpose simply so I can carry it round with me to show to ticket inspectors and mobile phone salesmen.

So there you have it.

Oh no, ID cards — or their interim equivalent — are entirely voluntary, Sir. You don't have to have a passport or a driving licence, Sir, and you don't have to carry them with you at all times, Sir. It's entirely up to you, Sir. Mind you, it isn't half going to make life difficult I should very well imagine, Sir. But that's entirely up to you, Sir. It's a free country after all, Sir. By the way, Sir, are those shoes you're wearing licensed for use on the public footpath? No proof, Sir? Just step this way, please. No, I'm afraid you'll have to take them off, Sir. They're evidence, you see.

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