Monday, January 30, 2006

 

ID Cards: the road to ruin for Blair?

Even supposing Blair extracts something like his original education Bill from the legislative process, he will face another sullen phalanx of dissent over his palns fdor ID Cards. I blogged on this last summer but I thought a more detailed coverage of the topic is now required.

This policy saga- for that is what it has become- first entered the public domain in February 2002 when David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, announced an ‘entitlement card’ to prevent benefit fraud and deter terrorism. The idea soon attracted vitriolic criticism, if only for its estimated cost of over a billion pounds and its erosion of civil liberties. In consequence the idea was repackaged to be introduced in stages with a full decision on a compulsory scheme delayed until 2013. Many suggested the idea should be dropped but instead of dropping the scheme after the 2005 election, when it was eminently pssible, it was submitted to parliament at the end of June. This time the card was to include biometric information relating to the subject’s face, finger prints and iris ; it was passed on its 2nd Reading but the government’s slimmed majority was further reduced, by rebels-mostly from the leftwing Campaign Group- to a mere 31. In The Guardian 28th June 2005 Martin Kettle discussed objections by David Davis, Charles Clarke’s then Conservative Shadow Home Secretary who had suggested the idea had to pass the test of four penetrating questions:
i) Will it work to achieve stated goals? Certainly it would help prevent benefit and identity fraud but few believe, even in government, that it would deter terrorists, thus producing an at best opaque case for ID cards in the first place. Debates in the Lords during January made the case seem more 'dubious’ the longer they continued according to The Guardian 18th January. In a letter to the same paper 23rd January, the minister in charge, Tony McNulty, argued the card would be a major blow against financial and benefit fraud: ‘linking a unique biometric to personal data means people have control over access to their details.'
ii) Is the government capable of introducing such a system? IT based schemes have turned out to be notoriously difficult to introduce successfully and huge amounts had been wasted by the NHS on new data processing which had proved calamitous as had the tax credit scheme which had resulted in huge overpayments being claimed back from recipients.
iii) Is it cost effective? Initial estimates of the cost exceeded one billion but that soon tripled, with the government’s best estimate of the cost to the public of the card- in combination with a passport- being £93. Over half of respondents to an ICM poll supported the scheme at such a price in June 2005. The Home Office calculated the cost at £6billion over ten years but a careful study by the LSE placed the total cost at £19bn or even £24bn. While rebutting the LSE estimate as absurd, the government however resisted giving detailed costings on the grounds such commercially sensitive information would prevent the public receiving the best possible deal when contracts were issued. Lord Crickhowell in the Lords debate inevitably accused the government of offering the taxpayer a ‘pig in the poke’. McNulty claimed government figures were correct and the LSE wholly wrong.
iv) Can civil liberties be safeguarded? The Information Commissioner , Richard Thomas, thinks not. He addressed the Home Affairs Select Committee in June 2004 and confessed himself ‘increasingly alarmed’ by the plan. He did not see a ‘sufficient rationale’ for recording or the whole population: name, address, date of birth, gender, nationality plus biometric details from finger and eye scans. The idea had ‘potential for significant detrimental impact on the day to day lives of individuals.’

So, ID Cards appear to be too expensive, too riskily experimental, and far too dangerous a violation of civil liberties. But, at the time of writing the government seems determined to push through a ‘flagship’ piece of legislation. Maybe, the signs of the deathwish are becoming more dramatic- I very much doubt this idea will ever become law.

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