Blair defends ID cards after plan is dismissed as 'dog's dinner'

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Tony Blair faced a dual assault on the Government's proposals for ID cards yesterday, with leading academics and the official information watchdog condemning plans for a national identity database covering every individual in Britain.

Tony Blair faced a dual assault on the Government's proposals for ID cards yesterday, with leading academics and the official information watchdog condemning plans for a national identity database covering every individual in Britain.

A 300-page report by staff at the London School of Economics made fundamental criticisms of the justification, technology and scope of the ID cards scheme. The report warned that it could pose a "far greater risk to the safety and security of UK citizens" than any of the problems it is intended to address.

In a second blow to the Government's proposals, Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, also strongly attacked plans for a national identity register as "unwarranted and intrusive". He said ID cards could be used to track people's lives and help create a "surveillance society".

"Each development puts in place another component in the infrastructure of a surveillance society," he said. "To avoid this, it is important that each component limits to the minimum the recording of information about individuals."

The Prime Minister strongly defended the ID cards scheme yesterday, but Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, faces a growing rebellion when MPs debate the Bill for the first time today. Mr Blair said he would drop the plans if costs spiralled out of control but rejected claims by the LSE that the scheme could cost up to £19.2bn.

The LSE researchers said plans for ID cards and passports containing fingerprint or facial scans, were "unsafe in law", because they may infringe human rights and the ancient law to enter and leave the country freely.

They costed the scheme at between £10.6bn and £19.2bn. That would put the cost of a card at a minimum of £170, nearly twice the Home Office estimate of £93. They said the proposed national identity database was "technologically precarious" and a potential target for fraudsters and terrorists. Professor Ian Angell, who led the LSE research, branded the system a "one-stop shop for fraudsters". He said: "It is a dog's dinner. I do not believe it is going to work."

Mr Blair said the ID card scheme was needed to meet international demands for greater security in passports. He said: "We have the chance to use this opportunity to get ahead in this change and the move, therefore, to biometric passports makes identity cards an idea whose time has come."

The LSE report said that there was "no evidence to support this assertion", arguing that the Government's planned hi-tech database went far beyond international requirements for "smart" passports. It said US officials had demanded only that biometric passports contain a digital picture of the holder, not the facial scan, fingerprints and iris recognition data proposed under the British scheme. The study also raised questions over whether the system would unfairly affect disabled people and discriminate on the grounds of race.

Computer failure

* Passport Agency. Work on system started in 1997, but technical problems cost £12.6m and 40-day delays in passport turnover caused pandemonium. Inability of staff to process info quickly was disastrous, not technology

* Benefits Payment Card. Designed to link all 19,000 UK post offices and the DSS benefits system. With costs at £1bn, the project was suspended in 1999. Planning/co-ordination and supplier problems

* Contributions Agency. Major problems at start and incapacity benefits were paid "blind". It was feared the failure could affect more than 80,000 benefit applicants

* Lord Chancellor's Office. The Libra court computer system to link 385 magistrates' courts to a standard computer system was suspended in 2002 with little improvement. Costs rose from £184m to 390m

* Child Support Agency. Work on the system began in 2002, but technical problems caused loss of £200m. Staff not prepared to operate it

* Inland Revenue. Technical and supplier problems led to slow take-up in online services after work started in 2001. Security breaches and major error (£15m of debts were wiped)

* Criminal Records Bureau. Work began in 2001. Delays in processing information caused chaos, with school staff unavailable for work as checks not ready for start of school year.

* HM Customs & Excise. VAT online Pilot project had 66 per cent drop-out rate as users not attracted

* Public Record Office Census Online. Work began in 2000. But service overwhelmed after four days and suspended for months. Relations between supplier and departments blamed

* NHS national programme for (NpfIT) System to link hospitals and GPs' surgeries. Likely to cost £30bn, five times the original price. Training staff accounts for almost all overspend.

* Housing benefit system. Initial costs put at £700m but ballooned to £2.66bn, and fraud continues

Ian Herbert

(Sources: LSE, Computer Weekly, York University Department of Computer Science)

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