The Big Question: Is the writing on the wall for the Government's ID card scheme?
Friday 19 June 2009
Why are we asking this now?
The Government had been due to award a key contract as part of its grand biometric ID card scheme this autumn. Three companies - Thales, Fujitsu and IBM - were bidding for the right to develop the cards' design and handle their production. But this week the Home Office admitted a decision might not be made until the second half of 2010. This is the second delay to have hit the Government's ID card scheme. Under the original plans, the widespread roll-out of the cards would have taken place next year. Now it is not due until 2012.
Why the latest delay?
The Home Office argues that commercial and technical considerations are responsible. But it has been noted that the decision comes at a time when the future of the scheme has never looked more precarious. This week the shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling wrote to companies who might be involved in producing the cards to warn them that the scheme would be cancelled if the Conservatives win power at the next election; something the opinion polls suggest is increasingly likely.
Why are the Tories opposed to the scheme?
The Tories and the Liberal Democrats have long maintained that the introduction of ID cards would undermine traditional civil liberties. The Tory leader, David Cameron attacked the scheme as "unBritish" this week. The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, has called the cards a "laminated poll tax".
The smaller parties, from the SNP and Plaid Cymru, to the Green Party and UKIP, are also opposed. The Government claims the scheme would be useful in curbing illegal immigration, thwarting organised crime, and would make it easier for people to access public services. Opponents argue that it would be ineffective, intrusive and create new opportunities for fraudsters.
Are those the only objections?
Far from it. The cost of the scheme is another major reason why the scheme attracts opposition. The Government says the cost of producing biometric ID cards and passports over the next 10 years will be £4.8bn. At a time when all parties are looking for ways to reduce public spending, cancelling the scheme is seen as a relatively pain-free way of saving money.
The Home Office argues that 70 per cent of the £4.8bn would be spent on biometric passports, limiting the saving from scrapping the cards to around £1.2bn. But this ignores the fact that this Government has an unfortunate habit of underestimating the cost of large projects, particularly those involving computer databases. Dr Edgar Whitley of the London School of Economics estimates that the true cost of the scheme will end up between £10bn and £20bn. If that is closer to the truth, the potential savings begin to look rather more substantial.
Haven't some contracts already been signed?
Yes. Four contracts have been concluded. Thales is running a pilot scheme. CSC is developing a passport and ID card application system. IBM has a contract to build a database to store fingerprint and facial biometrics. And De La Rue has a contract to produce biometric passports. The former Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, revealed in March that it would cost £40m for the Government to extricate itself from these contracts.
But much of the technology being developed under these agreements would be needed to develop biometric passports, which the Conservatives support. The key contract with the private sector would be the one to develop and produce the new cards themselves. That is why this latest delay is significant.
Is it wise for the Tories to write to companies threatening to overturn signed contracts?
The Tories say such drastic measures are needed to prevent the Government locking a future government into the scheme. But not everyone is impressed by this argument. Some point out that companies such as Thales are already fully aware that public procurement contracts, especially ones as controversial as ID cards, are at risk of being revisited and that they insert compensation clauses with this risk in mind. This makes the Conservative warnings unnecessary. It is suggested that the opposition would be better off concentrating its criticism on the Government, rather than seeking to put pressure on private firms.
What is the timetable for introducing ID cards?
Some 30,000 cards have already been issued to non-EU nationals living in Britain. Later this year, they will be given to workers at London City and Manchester airports. And this autumn British citizens living in Manchester will be given the chance to participate in a trial scheme.
From 2011/2012 the Identity and Passport Service plans to issue "significant volumes" of ID cards to people when they apply for a British passport, although they will be able to opt out of having a card.
This staged approach is deliberate. The Government hopes that support for the cards will grow when people witness how they can make their life easier. The Government says that if it wins the next general election it will give MPs a free vote on whether to make the cards compulsory for all UK citizens over the age of 16.
What is the view of the public at the moment on ID cards?
Despite the deep concerns of civil libertarians, most people have, in the past, been reasonably well-disposed to the idea of a national ID card scheme. But that has begun to change as the costs have come into focus, particularly the fact that everyone will be required to pay a £30 fee to obtain one.
Over the past five years the NoID pressure group has commissioned regular polls to gauge public support for the Government's proposals. Normally a poll from a pressure group would need to be treated with scepticism. But NoID has asked the same unloaded question on each occasion. It has found that support for the cards has fallen from 55 per cent in June 2005 to 48 per cent in December 2009.
Interestingly, the plans to issue ID cards to pilots and other airport workers - the first British citizens to be forced to hold the cards - are meeting growing resistance.
Is the Government about to perform a U-turn?
There are rumours in Westminster that support in the Cabinet for ID cards is receding. And there were reports at the weekend that the new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has ordered a review of the policy.
But Mr Johnson also described ID cards this week as a "manifesto commitment". And while there might be grumblings about the wisdom of ploughing on with the scheme in the Cabinet, it would be a considerable humiliation for the Government to scrap a policy that it has doggedly clung to for some four years.
So ID cards might not be officially binned, but do not be surprised if ministers decide to kick the scheme still further into the long grass before the next general election.
Will ID cards ever see the light of day?
* The new Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, has reaffirmed the scheme as a "manifesto commitment"
* It would be expensive to break the contracts that have already been signed
* ID cards are already a reality and they will become increasingly accepted in the years ahead
* The Tories have promised to scrap the scheme and they are likely to win the next general election
* ID cards are an expensive scheme that the country simply cannot afford with the public finances in their present state
* The public mood is shifting against the scheme
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