Steve Richards: Expensive, risky and a waste of political capital - but still they press on with ID cards

The curious progress of this policy suggests that party politics has played quite a big part
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The last election seems an age away. Already, the issues that dominated the campaign have little political relevance. It was only a few weeks ago that Labour pledged to save billions by sacking civil servants. In response, the Conservatives promised to sack even more. Times were hard, savings were required. Now we do not hear even an echo of this debate. Instead, the Government presses on with plans to introduce ID cards, an issue rarely raised during the campaign. The proposal will be costly, possibly very expensive, and will demand the attention of vast numbers of civil servants at a time when ministers were supposed to be wielding a ruthless axe. Times are not so hard, after all.

Home Office ministers claim their scheme will cost around £6bn and will be self-financing. Almost certainly, both claims will prove to be wrong. Already, ministers are signalling that there will be concessions for the elderly and the low paid. In this minor sense, there are parallels with Margaret Thatcher's poll tax. She was forced to announce discounts and exemptions for the worst off in the face of a growing political storm. If the Government does the same over ID cards, the scheme will not be self-financing unless the better-off subsidise the poor by paying even more.

Nearly always, governments underestimate the financial implications of favoured schemes. In the case of ID cards, the ministerial estimates already have a tentative ring. Home Office ministers insist their figures are "robust", a conveniently flexible term. I can hear an irate Charles Clarke argue on a future Today programme that his estimates were "robust at the time". In an impressively detailed report, the LSE puts the costs at between £10bn and £19bn. The wide gap between the top and bottom end of their estimates conveys the unpredictable nature of this project, but I have spoken to authoritative sources from within the Government who fear that the much higher figures are more robust than those provided by the Home Office.

If they are right, one of the running news stories over the next few years will be the rising costs of ID cards, probably accompanied by equally damning reports about the technical cock-ups. According to the LSE report, the technology being used for this uniquely ambitious scheme is "untried and untested". This is a dream story for broadcasters who seek constantly a "new line" for their never-ending outlets and for hostile newspapers wanting to make mischief.

The paranoid arguments about a sinister "state" acquiring information are unconvincing. Most of us carry some form of identity now, and the information on an ID card would be minimal. These arguments are part of the irrational fear of any government activity in Britain.

The pivotal issues are cost, competence and priorities. I have already cited the Scrooge-like atmosphere in which the last election was contested. During its third term, the Government will almost certainly be too timid to raise taxes in order to maintain the present respectable levels of public spending on schools, hospitals and transport. Yet it risks imposing an unpopular charge for ID cards, probably at a time when the next election moves into view. This is a country that cannot run a decent train service when it gets too hot, but will have the most ambitious ID card system in the world. There will be trouble ahead.

At his Downing Street press conference yesterday, Tony Blair stressed that the legislation being debated by MPs today signals an early phase of the policy. He made clear that no government would go ahead with a scheme that proved to be excessively expensive. If the costs are too great, the policy will be dropped. This is of limited comfort. Labour's third term begins with a row over a policy that might not be implemented, at least as envisaged. As one of the brightest of Labour's new intake reflected to me the other day with an air of early disillusionment: "Is this what I became an MP for?"

Surprisingly, Mr Blair provided the answer at his press conference. He declared: "I did not go into politics to introduce ID cards". With a characteristic deftness, he sought to separate the policy from what he called "the politics of conviction", which encompasses such policies as reform of public services and the minimum wage. The introduction of ID cards is not a matter for party politics, according to Mr Blair, more an opportunity provided by advances in technology.

He was being disingenuous. He and other ministers rarely lose the opportunity to highlight divisions in the Conservative Party over the issue. Indeed, the curious progress of this policy suggests that party politics has played quite a big part. A year ago, the Cabinet held a lengthy discussion during which a fair amount of doubt was expressed about cost, practicalities and civil liberties. Much was made at the time of the mature debate around the Cabinet table. But the debate did not bring about a significant pause for reflection.

Polls suggested the policy was popular. As a bonus, the Conservatives would be thrown into pre-election disarray, with Michael Howard being a supporter of ID cards and his Home Affairs spokesman, David Davis, a passionate opponent. In such propitious political circumstances, the policy was rushed along. Within months of the wide-ranging exploratory discussion in the Cabinet, the Home Office was preparing legislation.

Arguably the most damning section of the LSE report is the criticisms of the Government for failing to explore other options. Not for the first time, an independent inquiry condemns the Government for its impatience, for rushing through an ill thought-out policy. A similar restlessness was on display during the last term in the original proposals for foundation hospitals and city academies. The detailed consequences were for another time. Let's get on with it.

In his broader assessment of ID cards, Mr Blair is right. ID cards are not about the politics of conviction. Yet here they are, eating up parliamentary time and causing more internal unease in the governing party. With the Conservatives sinking voluntarily into another crisis of their own making and the Liberal Democrats nowhere to be seen, a Labour government again has the luxury of political space. During the second term, much of the space was wasted on Iraq. Now it is ID cards that will be devouring space and money.

ID cards are not sinister, but the limited benefits and the risks involved are not worth the loss of political capital. The start of a new term is when a government has greatest authority. This is when the politics of conviction should be uppermost in ministerial minds. Instead, ministers sweat over this. What a waste.