Government under fire over ID cards

The home secretary's announcement that carrying an ID card will never be compulsory for British citizens has prompted many to question its future

The government has been critisised over its decision to press ahead with the national ID card scheme following home secretary Alan Johnson's announcement that carrying an ID card will never be compulsory for British citizens.

Plans to make ID cards compulsory for airside workers and pilots have also been dropped this week by the Home Office, with trials planned for Manchester and London City airports both scrapped.

The ID card scheme will remain compulsory for foreign nationals from outside the European Economic Area, however, and the home secretary has asked the UK Border Agency to review the rollout so far and identify how it could be accelerated. The UK Border Agency has now issued more than 50,000 ID cards to foreign nationals.

Johnson also announced yesterday the government still plans to roll the scheme out in Greater Manchester on a voluntary basis and will also extend it across the north-west region early in 2010.

The government's decision to keep the scheme on a voluntary basis for British citizens has prompted many to question its future.

The Conservative Party has already said it would scrap the ID card scheme if it wins the next general election, and shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, said the decision by the government not to make ID cards compulsory makes the scheme "even more of a white elephant", and that spending millions on a scheme such as this "makes no sense at all".

Grayling questioned the point of the scheme without the compulsory element, saying in a statement: "[The government has] spent millions on the scheme so far. The home secretary… thinks it has been a waste and wants to scrap it, but the prime minister won't let him. So we end up with an absurd fudge instead."

"This is a project that nobody wants and the nation can't afford," he added.

The Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary, Chris Huhne, said that the "expensive and intrusive plans should be ditched now" with the money being spent on something that could fight crime and terrorism such as more police on the street.

"This is another nail in the coffin for the government's illiberal ID cards policy, which will soon be so voluntary that only Home Office mandarins seeking promotion will have them," he said in a statement.

However, some feel that it remains unlikely that the current government will abandon the project completely.

Ian Angell, professor of information systems at the London School of Economics, told ZDNet UK's sister site, silicon.com: "This isn't a cancellation exercise, it's treading water. [The government] can't scrap it because too much credibility is tied up in it. This is trying to keep the whole thing alive at a minimum cost."

'Waste of time and money'
"One of these days they're going to wake up to the fact that it's a complete waste of time and money and they're going to have to cut back on every project in order to stop this country sliding into complete meltdown," he added.

While the government may have decided to drop the compulsory element of the scheme, it is still hoping to encourage UK citizens to sign up voluntarily by promoting potential uses of the card, such as for travel within Europe in place of a passport and confirming identity — for age verification, for example.

"The benefits are not just for individuals but also for communities where a reliable proof of age will be invaluable in the fight against underage drinking and young people trying to buy knives. But at the same time, these cards will benefit young people who, on average, have to prove their age more than twice as often as adults and I want to make that process simple and secure," home secretary Alan Johnson said on Tuesday.

But it seems retailers are not convinced about the value of the ID card scheme for age verification.

A British Retail Consortium (BRC) spokesman told silicon.com: "Retailers are thoroughly unconvinced of...

...the need for a national ID card scheme. It's very hard to see what a national ID card scheme would add to the proof-of-age standard scheme which is already in place and which actually works very well."

He added that the addition of another form of age verification would only serve to confuse shop staff who already have to deal with a large number of ID forms for age-restricted items.

"It is possible that [ID cards] could play a part in helping employers, including retailers, establish the eligibility to work of people from overseas, but of course there are other means of doing that anyway," he continued.

A spokesman for campaign group No2ID also questioned the benefits of the voluntary ID card scheme, telling silicon.com: "I largely hope that the British public will avoid the identity scheme for as long as it lurks in the wings like the dangerous, invasive and wholly illiberal scheme it is."

"Anyone who feels the need to voluntarily pre-register for an ID card should think long and hard about how they might benefit from a card that would see its holder's personal details held for life on a no doubt poorly run and secured government database, accessible to tens of thousands of civil servants if not more, where he or she can be fined for failing to keep the Home Office informed of changes in their details," he added.

The ID cards scheme has already cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds, according to figures provided by the Home Office — although it claims the exact cost to the public cannot be calculated.

The identity-card project's costs have become increasingly opaque following the creation of the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) in 2006. After its formation, the government has rolled up ID card costs with those attached to biometric passports as it says tech infrastructure and operational processes for the two projects can be shared, making it therefore impossible to break out expenditure for ID cards alone.

Asked how much has been spent on ID cards to date, the Home Office said £41.1m was spent between the financial years 2003/04 and 2005/06, along with £174.1m of costs shared by ID cards and biometric passports between 2006/7 and 2009/10, subject to the finalisation of the 2008/09 accounts.

In a response to a Freedom of Information request made earlier this year by silicon.com the Home Office revealed it paid consultancy firm PA Consulting £33.8m between 2004/05 and 2005/06 for ID cards-related work — meaning the consultancy scooped the lion's share of early ID cards spending.

ID card costs for the 2009/10 year are projected to reach £50m and hit £1.31bn over the 10-year period to 2019, according to the government's latest Identity Cards Scheme Cost Report, published in May 2009.

silicon.com's Natasha Lomas contributed to this report

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