ID Card Plan Secretive, Expensive and Inconsistent, Government Told

ID card plan secretive, expensive and inconsistent, government told

Oliver King and agencies
Friday August 4, 2006
Guardian Unlimited

Tony Blair's determination to press ahead with plans to introduce identity cards received a double blow today when two reports accused the government of confusion and of keeping the public in the dark.

First, a Commons committee reported that plans for ID cards were “inconsistent” and “lacking clarity” and questioned the Home Office's claim that the overall cost would be half the 19bn estimate of analysts.

And, second, Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, found that the Treasury analysis of the scheme was being unfairly kept secret and ordered details to be made public.

The latest setback to hit ID cards, due to be introduced in two years, came as Tony Blair insisted at his monthly press conference yesterday that he would press on with them as it was the best way to tackle illegal immigration and benefit fraud.
“Don't be in any doubt that this goes forward. Absolutely,” he told reporters. “Whatever the technical issues, this is a major, major issue for us and will be a major plank of Labour's manifesto at the next election.”

The Commons science and technology committee found that there was confusion over what the scheme would entail, and that it was crucial to increase “clarity and transparency”.

In its report, MPs said it was not known what personal data would be revealed in different scenarios.

“Until this information is released, it is difficult to ascertain the true scope of the scheme,” they said.

The ways in which different government departments would use the cards did not appear to have been finalised, the committee said.

It also found that decisions had been made about biometric technology before it had been trialled.

MPs were also “sceptical” about the official estimated annual running costs of 584m, describing the figure as “driven by political imperatives”. Research from the London School of Economics suggested implementation and running costs would total 10.6bn to 19.2bn over the first 10 years.

Phil Willis, the committee's Liberal Democrat chairman, said concerns expressed by industry figures should “set alarm bells in the Home Office ringing”. “Too many aspects are unclear: costs, acceptable technology performance levels, plans for the ICT system and the scope of the scheme,” he said.

“As a matter of urgency and to increase public confidence, the Home Office must give a clearer idea of what identity cards will be used for if the right technology is to be put in place.”

In the second report, released last night, the information commissioner upheld two complaints that information about independent analysis of the progress of the ID project was unfairly being kept secret.

The Treasury now has 35 days to either reveal whether the scheme has been given a green, amber or red light or appeal against the ruling.

Those ratings are decided by regular gateway reviews carried out on all such major high-risk IT-related projects by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC).

The Commissioner also ruled against the OGC's refusal to publish details.

He rejected arguments that opening up the reviews to outside scrutiny would “discourage future co-operation” and prejudice the audits.

Mr Thomas said that the “significant impact” of ID cards “on the lives of individuals and their relationship with the state” was a “highly significant factor” in his decision.

A spokesman for the OGC said that it was studying the report before considering “a number of options”, including an appeal.

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, derided the “shambles” the scheme was in and the lack of focus and attention to detail by the Home Office.

“It beggars belief that the government is prepared to waste 19bn of taxpayers' money on this plastic poll tax when the project is already in such dire straits,” he said.

Joan Ryan, the Home Office minister, said that the government would consider the criticisms in the report and would respond in full at a later date, adding that the committee had also endorsed many aspects of the government's approach.

It emerged last month that a crucial stage of the project had been postponed.

Tendering of contracts for the multibillion-pound programme – which will force every adult in Britain to give fingerprint and iris scans – had been put off until at least the end of the year.

Computer Weekly magazine disclosed that the delay would make the scheme highly unlikely to be running by 2008 as planned.

It also emerged that the project was likely to be dramatically simplified.

Rather than having all 10 fingerprints and other “biometrics” stored on a microchip in the card, the new slimmed-down version might have only a digital photograph, or possibly two fingerprints, officials revealed.

Phil Booth from the NO2ID campaign group said the MPs' report revealed that the “political” nature of the project was distorting its implementation.

“Driven by a political agenda all along, the Home Office's utter failure to engage properly with the public, experts and industry and its culture of secrecy and bullying means that it now doesn't even have the basic level of trust required to proceed.

“Despite all the committee's recommendations, this scheme can't be fixed, so it should be dropped and the act repealed before even more damage is done.”