The Sketch: Points for correct behaviour on your ID card?

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The Independent Online

Those who fear their faith in government is vulnerable should look away now. If you believe in government accountability and transparency please take a walk to the bottom of your garden (don't get mugged by the fairies).

Tony Wright's Public Administration Committee had in three information workers yesterday - a professor, a journalist and a local government consultant. It was a most unusual meeting: the questions were as interesting as the answers.

Tory Ian Liddell-Grainger wondered whether anyone in the room had heard of the True North project. No one had. It was one of the early Blair Which? projects designed to introduce consumer services to government. It had cost £83m, Mr Liddell-Grainger said, "and the only reason we [on the committee] heard about it was that the Government was sued by one of the suppliers!"

What about a company called Computacenter? They've been given £60m in three years by the Cabinet Office. Why? The Cabinet Office won't say, and far from disclosing their brief, the company won't admit to having the Government as a client. Only bitter restraint prevents me adding another exclamation mark.

Tony Collins of Computer Weekly referred to the seminar at which it was decided to devise an NHS card to put all British patient records online. If it doesn't cost £20bn, it'll cost £30bn; it dwarfs any other IT project. The records of that seminar are non-obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Collins also told us how he'd been called in by one of the departments (he wouldn't say which) and asked to stop writing articles about them. Not because the stories were false, but because they were "affecting public confidence". It's comforting to realise one is still young enough to be shocked. Professor Patrick Dunleavy from the London School of Economics (trashed whenever possible by the Home Office) told us that the whole nature of the proposed card had changed. They're removing most of the security (on cost grounds, probably). It appears now that there aren't going to be biometric readers all over the public service (news to me, how about you?). The cards are now just fancy chip 'n' pin - more easily falsified but still freightable with carts of data. Here's a truly Brave New World suggestion from the consultant, Richard Tyndall: " ... citizens are rewarded with points when they display behaviours in line with public policy objectives, such as choosing healthy eating options in a school canteen, or exercising at the leisure centre, or taking adult education courses, or using recycling facilities".

But at least we realised the civil liberties arguments will be resolved by operational considerations. The huge, sprawling, intricate system just ain't going to work. Alas, we also discovered that once a project costing this much starts, there's no way of stopping it.