High-street ID card plan won't work, MPs say

Workers in post offices and other retailers lack the skills to handle ID card enrolment, leaving the scheme open to fraud, a government committee has found
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Plans to cut £1bn from the cost of the ID cards project by making people enrol on the high street could be unworkable, after a government report warned the process could be vulnerable to fraud.

The Home Office had hoped biometric enrolment for cards would take place in post offices, but this could be thrown into doubt by a report on Tuesday by the Business and Enterprise Committee that found "many or even most identity services may well be too sophisticated to provide across the [post office] network".

This is the latest blow to hit the ID card project; the government has already announced it does not plan to make the cards compulsory and has recently dropped plans that require airside workers and pilots to have the cards. Retailers were also hoping to benefit from up to £6bn in extra business due to the increased footfall from being involved in enrolment.

The Department for Transport (DfT) advised the committee that it was becoming increasingly difficult for Post Office staff to spot high-quality fake passports that were being used for over-the-counter checks when applying for driving licences. Passports would also be used as one of the ways of verifying identity when enrolling for ID cards.

The DfT told the committee that the "ability to identify increasingly sophisticated counterfeits and forgeries has become a specialist skill which Post Office staff, who handle a very wide range of business and general transactions, cannot be expected to have".

The cost of providing ID cards and biometric passports over the next 10 years has been reduced to £5bn, on the basis that people would scan their fingerprints and facial photographs in high-street outlets, which also include pharmacies and photographic shops, rather than at government offices.

Edgar Whitley, reader in information systems at the London School of Economics and co-author of two LSE reports on the ID cards scheme, said the argument that high-street biometric enrolment could be both secure and cheap had fallen apart.

"I would assume that the Post Office would have been one of the more secure locations, as they are handling money and passport applications," he said.

"If Post Office staff do not have those kinds of skills, then the staff on the tills at pharmacies and photo shops are not going to be able to do that. If you have people who have to be trained for biometric enrolment, they are then going to be overqualified to also sell stamps and cold cures," he added. "It will be unprofitable to do [the training], and the move to the private market becomes very difficult to implement. It means that the £1bn saving by moving into the private sector has to be moved back into the cost of the scheme again"

The chairman of the Business and Enterprise Committee, Conservative MP Peter Luff, said he believes enrolment services would be able to take place at larger Post Offices — but only at a cost.

"Most of the small sub-post offices would probably not be suitable, but the larger, more sophisticated post offices probably would be," he said. "Not every post office could carry out the service, and there will be cost implications, but if there is a service that citizens have a right to access, then you cannot just run it on a cost model."

A Home Office spokeswoman said the department had yet to consider the cost of training post-office and private-sector staff.

She added that the government had still not committed itself to high-street biometric enrolment for the public, who will be able to get ID cards from 2012.

A Home Office spokesman added that the decision on whether to issue a card will not lie with Post Office or shop staff. "Decisions on who is eligible to receive one will remain with the relevant organisation and only after appropriate checks have been made on an individual's application," the spokesman said.

People living in Manchester, who will be able to apply for ID cards from the end of 2009, will enrol in facilities in Identity and Passport Service offices.

The report also revealed that the UK Border Agency plans to run a pilot over six to 12 months, where foreign nationals will be able to enrol for ID cards in one of 20 post offices across the UK.

The Home Office said it is on track to meet its commitment of issuing 75,000 cards to foreign nationals by November 2009.

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